October 22, 2008

One Day at the Laundromat

2008 1530 page26 capeveral years ago while our house was being built, I found myself living in a small travel trailer with my husband and two young children. This meant going to the local Laundromat twice a week.
One morning for my quiet time, the sermon outline from the previous Sabbath’s worship service fell out of my Bible. I picked it up and began reviewing the thoughts taken from Matthew 25. Immediately I imagined a colorful picture of sheep bleating on one side of Jesus and goats making noise on the other side.
I bowed my head and asked God to use me to help someone in need that day.
My daughter and I left soon afterward with two trash bags of dirty clothes piled high in the trunk of the Jeep. I had planned to go to the larger Laundromat down the street. But as I passed the small one, I suddenly felt an overpowering urge to turn in. “Why in the world did I do that?” I mumbled as I parked the car.
I took a look inside. It was still early, and I hoped to avoid the crowd that talked loudly and filled the room with cigarette smoke. We were the only ones there.
My pocket was heavy with $20 worth of quarters, and I walked to the back of the laundry room where the washing machines were closest to the dryers. We loaded our clothes into the machines. My 4-year-old helped me put in the quarters, the detergent, and the fabric softener. We sat on a nearby bench to read while the clothes washed.
A Minor Distraction
Not five minutes into enjoying this quiet, cozy time together, I noticed a man in a wheelchair roll by the front window. He was missing his right leg, and his jeans, shirt, and long hair were covered with dried mud, bits of grass, and stains of all kinds.
2008 1530 page26My first response was to pray: “Dear God, please keep us safe; we’re here all alone.”

As I continued to read to my child, the man wheeled through the front door, stopped, and looked around. A dirty backpack was slung on the back of his wheelchair. I felt vulnerable and somewhat trapped as he came by and looked at us. It was almost as if he wanted to say something, but he didn’t. He looked away and wheeled back to the front entrance, staring up at a machine on the wall. He dug around in his back-pack for awhile, unable to find what he was looking for. Finally he shrugged his shoulders and left the machine. He wheeled over to the bank of washing machines opposite from where we sat and lifted the lid on the washer by the front door.
He took off his torn denim jacket and put it into the washer. A moment later he tossed in his plaid shirt. Because the man was sitting in the wheelchair and the washer lid was up, I could see only his head from where we sat. Next I saw a dirty sock go in the machine. That was followed by a long pause, some squirming, huffing, and puffing. Then a pair of dirty blue jeans went into the machine. I stopped reading. Finally, a pair of dingy underwear was tossed into the machine. The man spent several minutes digging in his backpack again, but all that searching yielded only one quarter, which he plunked loudly onto the lid of the machine.
Just then my washing machines stopped, so I stood up to transfer the clothes to the dryers. Out of the corner of my eye my worst fears were confirmed. The man was naked and seemed unable to find enough money to start his machine. A nicely dressed man entered the Laundromat with his clothes basket. He frowned when he saw the man in the wheelchair and chose a machine far down the line to put his clothes into.
Surely he’ll notice the problem and help this man, I thought.
Instead, the newcomer did his best to ignore the homeless man. He started his machine quickly and went to sit in his car by the front door, where he could keep an eye on his laundry through the large window.
Immediately the sermon notes from earlier in the morning popped into my mind: when Jesus comes, His sheep will be on His right and the goats will be on His left.
Acting on Impulse
Before I could change my mind I grabbed my box of laundry soap and walked over to the man. I tried to look directly into his eyes. For the first time in my life I stuttered: “Hi, I, uh, I noticed you might be a quarter or two short and I have extras. Can I help you start your machine?”

Shock and embarrassment washed across the man’s face. He finally nodded yes, and I quickly dug into my pocket and pulled out the necessary quarters, placing them in the machine.
“If you don’t mind,” I continued, “I have plenty of soap.” He nodded and mumbled, “Thanks” as I put soap in his machine and closed the lid. Quickly, I hurried back to my daughter, who sat happily looking at the pictures in her books.
Just then a woman walked into the Laundromat with a stack of Watchtower magazines in her hand. She quickly sized up the situation and offered the man a booklet. He accepted. She walked to the back of the building and offered me a booklet, rolled her eyes in the man’s direction, and left.
Then I recognized the sound of the homeless man’s machine going into the rinse cycle. God, I thought, he surely doesn’t care if his clothes are soft, or if they smell Downy fresh, does he? But I jumped up, grabbed my bottle of Downy, and walked toward the man. The Watchtower magazine lay discreetly across his lap.
“Sir, I thought you’d like some fabric softener for your clothes.”
He seemed bewildered for a moment, but he finally nodded.
Softener added, I hurried to my daughter again. The man wheeled over to a washtub against the wall and began to clean the mud off his face and arms. He used paper towels to dry himself, then pulled a broken comb out of his backpack and tried to get through the mass of snarls in his long hair.
I began folding my dry clothes and put them in a clean basket. Just as I finished matching the last of our many socks, I heard the homeless man’s machine finish its cycle; his clothes were done. He stood up on his one leg and began to pull out his clean clothes. Then he sat down and pulled the pile of wet clothes onto his lap and wheeled over to a big machine nearby mistaking it for a dryer. It was, in fact, an industrial-sized washing machine.
I jumped up, feeling nosey and foolish. “Sir,” I heard myself saying, “can I help transfer your clothes to a dryer in the back?”
He nodded, and I put them in a dryer along with several more quarters from my pocket. As the clothes began going around, the man replaced the magazine on his lap and sat near the dryer.

I hurried back to my daughter, grabbed my basket, and headed out the door with a sigh of relief. Too bad my husband is so much smaller than this man or I could have shared some of our clothes with him, I thought. Too bad I wasn’t washing any towels or sheets; they would’ve helped too.
Outside, I buckled my daughter into her car seat and placed the laundry basket in the trunk. As I pulled the door shut, I noticed the shop next door to the Laundromat. “Barber Shop” said the big letters on the building.
I put the key into the ignition. Then I sighed and took it out. I bowed my head on the steering wheel.
In Jesus’ Name
The barber looked up and smiled as I walked in. He was just finishing a customer’s haircut. Sounding apologetic, I briefly described the condition of the homeless man’s hair. I asked about the cost of a haircut and explained that I would be happy to pay for it if he would consider helping this man out. I braced myself for his ridicule.
The patron in the chair looked disgusted. But to my surprise the barber said, “A haircut costs $15; and yes, I’ll take care of him next.” I hurried back to the Laundromat and approached the man. I explained that after a recent haircut I felt so much better. I wondered if he, too, would like a haircut. If so, the barber next door would take him next at no cost to him. The man stared at me for the longest time. Then his sunken eyes lit up brightly and he nodded. I smiled back, and when he was dressed in his clean clothes I pushed his wheelchair out the door. As we passed the nicely dressed man, now folding his dry clothes, I noticed tears spilling from his eyes. He stepped up to me and said quietly, “Ma’am, you’re a Christian, aren’t you?”
I nodded.
“I knew it,” he said. “Only a person who loves Jesus would do so much for a man like this.”
As we headed to the barber shop my heart flooded with warm joy, full of praise to God for allowing me the privilege of helping a brother who was down on his luck, and at the same time giving me a chance to demonstrate God’s love for all. •
Sheryl Mostert Young lives in Placerville, California, with her husband Gary, two kids, and two dogs. This experience from several years ago opened doors for service to more of the community's homeless individuals.