I came across this article the other day looking at how the Pope just bought a laundromat for the homeless in the Vatican. What is so cool about this is that my high school students have been working on something like this for the past 2.5 years. Our only problem is that our pockets are as deep as the Vatican's.
Basically, 2.5 years ago I scrapped my morning Sunday school program in favor of trying something truly different. I wanted to increase student engagement, but more importantly I wanted them to make a missional impact on our community while they were learning about Jesus. I wanted them to feel like owners and participants in their discipleship rather than simply observers and recipients.
The process started with us reading segments of the book, "Toxic Charity". Then we interviewed people from different non-profits including our local schools. In the end, we decided that what we wanted to do was to try and help our local middle school. This resulted about 2 months ago in our first "Haircut and Laundry Night". We coordinated with a local beauty academy that was next to a laundromat and offered a night when families could come for extremely low cost haircuts and free laundry.
While our student turnout was great, nobody else came. The students handled all the setup, did posters, they brought $80 in quarters, and made cocoa. They were excited. But, nobody showed up. In the end that was okay. We had prepped them for two weeks with the idea that we were keeping a loose grip on this. God might let us know that we were doing the wrong thing or that we were doing it in the wrong way. We told them to stay patient and see what happens, and they did. So, in many ways it was an amazing learning experience for everyone and the disappointment level was fairly low. We think we need to advertise it better and do it on a different night at a different time. So, we are giving it another shot here at the end of the month.
Anyway, when I was sent (by three different people in my church!) this article about the Pope I couldn't help but laugh. One of our students, Emma, who has now been off at college for a year has been continually hammering me with the idea that what we really need to do is buy a laundromat. She refuses to let me let this idea die! It is spectacular and in some ways it is that kind of passion and energy that I want to release in my students. If only 10 of my students were so passionate about the work and teaching of Jesus as to be pounding the table like Emma, I would know we were doing the right things in our ministry.
Having said all that, I read the article and wondered a couple of things based on my work in social enterprise. I am just going to list them as bullet questions in order to save us all time.
1. While it's nice the Pope bought a laundromat, doesn't he own a whole city? In other words, let's do some more of this!!!
2. Why doesn't the Pope buy several of these and make them religious centers in some way, places where learning and socializing can take place too! Though the article seems to imply this trajectory a bit.
3. What if the Pope made them NOT free? I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but what if they were free for the homeless and low cost for others? At least they would be more self-sustaining that way. Maybe set a goal of 60% papal funding and 40% funded by profit?
4. What if the Pope didn't allow the Catholic church to own these? Give them to low income folks who show desire to own their own businesses. Budding entrepreneurs who need a shot! Give them a low cost lease on the space and allow them to reap the profit on the stipulation that the homeless get laundry done for free? It doubles down on impact. Pair them up with small business owners to collaborate.
Right now the model for charity almost always is dependent on the deep pockets of the church, other givers, or grants. Part of me always wonders in this situation whether the church and the philanthropist always does this sort of thing in order to create dependency on our institutions. We create ministries that are dependent on us because it makes us feel good and propagates our institutional identity. I don't want to push that too hard, but I think there is some truth there. For instance, the article states that Whirlpool donated the equipment. I am willing to bet that these are state of the art laundry machines. My guess is that in 3 years time they will begin breaking and you will have equipment that is incredibly expensive to fix. Whirlpool will probably agree to send repair people out for the first couple of years, but after that they won't want to sustain that initiative. So, the Vatican will be left with a really expensive laundromat that was not built efficiently because it didn't have to be. This is why the marketplace can be helpful.
If a regular business owner bought that laundromat on regular margins, they would have bought the most durable machines at the lowest cost. They might even have started with used machines. The priority would have not been on a flashy sort of space that is ultimately unsustainable without major benevolences. If the goal is clean laundry for the homeless over the long term then we need to think about building something that can sustain that work over the long term.
I want us to create ministries that do good Kingdom work, but that empower those engaged in them. I want ministries that do not rely fully on charitable dollars. I want ministries that serve our neighbor, but not by putting us in a place of power as giver. There needs to be an element of mutual marketplace exchange that does not rob the recipient of their dignity. I don't think its bad to engage the marketplace in this way. I am not against charity, but too often we underestimate its unsustainability and the power dynamics involved. Who knows, maybe the Pope will like this post and lease Emma her laundromat?!