Jesus at the Laundromat
Small-town pastor rallies community, other ministers to find a solution to clean clothes need.In the small Missouri town where Chip J. Sanders pastors, some kids don’t come to school because they have nothing to wear. So, he decided to do something about it.
Around 20 percent of the residents of Iberia, population 726, are below the poverty line. A common reason for truancy is because families lack washing machines, and the nearest coin-operated self-service laundry is more than 20 miles away.
Some homes have no running water. Certain locals wear their clothes until they’re too filthy, then throw them away.
“It’s hard to have a vision for your life when you don’t have the dignity of even having clean clothes to wear,” says Sanders, 46.
Five years ago, Sanders, who has pastored Iberia First Assembly of God since 2011, launched The Well, a community development nonprofit to help people out of generational poverty. Compassionate care opens the door to conversations about spiritual needs.
“Every community has its own set of needs,” Sanders says. “If you just listen to what they’re talking about, you can contextualize to meet the needs and solve community problems. If you don’t care who gets the credit, there’s really no limit to what you can do.”
Not long after First Assembly began helping residents through school-supply backpack drives and food distribution — some of the projects co-sponsored by Rural Compassion — other congregations in the area ministerial alliance began to approach Sanders offering to volunteer and give to the outreaches. Now all 18 churches in and around Iberia are working together to improve the town.
First Assembly is outside the city limits, too far to walk. Three years ago, a local church donated its in-town community center to First AG, which The Well is using to mentor public school students; operate a thrift store, food pantry, and diaper bank; and sponsor a feeding program that serves 200 children each week, among other outreaches.
Additionally, Sanders is secretary of the board of the area’s Community Action Agency (CAA) a nationwide federal program that, among other activities, partners with local nonprofits, including faith-based ones like The Well, to fund projects that benefit communities.
But providing a coin-operated laundry facility has its challenges. The Well’s community center building couldn’t accommodate the dozen pairs of washers and dryers. Iberia had no suitable available buildings. A business owned a city lot on a hill and offered to allow The Well to pay off the remaining amount it owed the bank.
Beyond that, architects are expensive. While volunteers could provide labor, materials could run as high as $300,000. Then they’d have to buy the machines themselves.
Sanders had already made Southern Missouri District Superintendent Don E. Miller aware of his dream. When Miller asked Sanders why he wanted to build a Laundromat, the response brought tears to the superintendent’s eyes.
“That’s the heart of a man who wants to touch his community: find a way for children and adults to have clean clothes,” Miller says.
In April, the district held its annual Momentum leadership conference and invited pastors to share about ministry in their communities. Sanders spoke to the 325 gathered about Iberia’s desperate need for a Laundromat and the daunting amount of funds required to make it happen.
That’s when the Holy Spirit moved District Youth Director Austin P. Westlake to pray for the Lord to provide resources. Miller looked up and saw a pastor stand, walk to the platform, and place an offering. Others followed suit.
“One walked up, and it started an avalanche,” Miller says. “People just began to bring money up and put it on the platform.” The spontaneous offering provided almost $15,000 for a self-serve laundry.
In addition, the district gave The Well a $5,000 grant. The donations not only allowed Sanders to pay cash for the land, but also initial architectural designs.
The 2,500-square-foot ground floor will house the Laundromat, built into a hillside. Needy students will be able to wash clothes for free during school hours. The 4,000-square-foot second floor will be a coffee shop and performance space, providing a direly needed community gathering spot.
The people of Iberia are behind the project, driving the fundraising.
“We couldn’t do it without the whole community helping us,” Sanders says. “It’s overwhelming to see how many have gotten behind it and support it.”
CAA provided a $105,000 grant for the washers and dryers. Sanders hopes construction is imminent.
Miller notes that Rural Compassion proved instrumental in developing the vision Sanders sowed.
“He’s so well respected in the town,” Miller says. “They look to him for leadership because he’s shown he really cares. He’s not building an empire. He’s just looking to build the Kingdom.”