Un-hampered reporting: Al-Jazeera runs sensitive feature on laundry ministries

"Washing your sins away" is a common phrase, but a church coalition has taken that a step further -- by doing laundry for the poor. The project, Laundry Love, is told in a sensitive, multisourced story in, of all places, Al-Jazeera.

The story is rich in quotes and atmosphere, allowing many of the principals tell their own story. It even pulls the curtain back from an area we thought we knew:

HARBOR CITY, Calif. — From the Pacific Coast Highway exit off the freeway in Harbor City, it is impossible to miss the towering exhaust stacks of the Phillips 66 petroleum refinery and the mammoth cranes of the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex. This is working-class L.A., 21 miles away and a world apart from the velvet-roped wonder of Tinseltown.
Across PCH from a payday loan shop and next door to a trailer park, King’s Laundry seems an unlikely vessel for hope in difficult times. But on a Thursday night in December, as a cheerful crowd of more than 100 men, women and children gathered in a parking lot to enjoy hot dogs, hearty soup and Christmas tunes played live by a church band, hope was exactly the thing on offer — in the form of free loads of laundry, courtesy of the volunteers who donate money, labor and laundry soap at Harbor City’s twice-monthly Laundry Love event.

Al-Jazeera neatly explains the genesis of Laundry Love: an appeal from a homeless man for clean clothes. “If I had clean clothes I think people would treat me like a human being," he said. It says the scheme works by partnering local churches with local Laundromats for the periodic wash-ups.

The mechanism, according to the story, is a free guide that can be downloaded from Laundry Love's website. The guide shows how to start a group and pair up with a Laundromat. The article doesn't tell the website address, but it's easy enough to find.

"Community" is a much-used word in this article -- it's even part of the name of one of the featured churches, the Bridge Communities. Here's a striking quote:

“What I try to ingrain in my folks is that we’re not trying to serve ‘those people,’ ” said Derrick Engoy, the pastor of the Branch, a church group that organizes the event in Harbor City and supplies most of the two dozen volunteers needed to make it happen. “We’re trying to ‘become’ those people and become a community. So it’s not like doing charity. You’re really just doing life with the people you serve.”

Although Al-Jazeera doesn't say so, the message is very similar to one preached at a conference of Catholic relief agencies held in Rome in November. They heard from Vatican officials on Pope Francis' message to form relationships with the poor, rather than just feed and shelter them. When you become their friends, the teachers reasoned, you naturally begin to care about their needs.

Laundry Love was founded by church people, but with an interfaith character -- to "work with people of all faiths and people of no faith," in the words of Greg Russinger, a co-founder. That facet gets a thumbs-up from a Jewish volunteer who's quoted in the story. "They welcomed me," she says. "A lot of places aren’t like that. It’s like you’re someone ‘other.’ ”

The diversity of the six quoted sources is refreshing and shows the writer did his homework. They include not only the co-founder, but volunteers and clients.

But the article is a little off on the number of Laundry Love places, unless the movement has been growing very fast.  It counts "more than 90" affiliated ministries nationwide, but a locator map on the website shows 118 places in 16 states. Forty-two are in California, its birthplace, but other concentrations are in Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio and along I-95 from Richmond to Providence.

The website also offers a few other resources than the downloadable guide. It has a small directory of "coaches" for starting up groups. The locator map lets you zoom in to pinpoint locales -- if, for example, you ever need clothes washed in in Salina, Kan. And it drops a few hints on in-kind gifts: printing, photography, travel miles, social media management, etc. Those might have been an interesting sidebar.

In sum, Al-Jazeera has produced a well-crafted glimpse of American charity in action. It tells stories, names names, and teaches us a little more about our neighbors -- and a new way to build a community together with them. This is the kind of religion story that American newspapers did not long ago. When they see it being done by a Middle East-based outlet -- and done well -- it just might sting their conscience.

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