By Lu Stanton León
This is the first in an occasional series on neighborhood ministries.
On the first Sunday of each month, patrons at a coin-operated laundry near St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in southeast Washington, DC, find children reading or being read to while the washing machines and dryers whir and vibrate nearby.
It’s part of Literature & Laundry, a service project founded by the Annunciation Chapter of the Order of the Daughters of the King based at St. Timothy’s. For the past three years, two or three volunteers have gone once a month to the nearby laundromat to read to and read with children while their parents and caregivers do laundry. Each child is given at least one book to take home.
“It’s a reading ministry that inspires joy through books,” says Donna Lewis Johnson, program founder and a member of Daughters of the King. “Even the most reticent child or the most reticent parent really becomes engaged. When we sit down and have a child read to us, or if we read to them, it brings joy. Every parent wants what’s best for their child, and they love seeing people in the community treating their kids with kindness. We do that.”
What prompted the reading ministry?
“I like to say that God gave me the idea,” Johnson says. “It was through a hardscrabble circumstance.”
In 2011, Johnson lost her job. “Soon afterward my washing machine went kaput,” she says. “I couldn’t afford to replace it or have it repaired, so I had to go to my neighborhood laundromat on Naylor Road to wash my family’s clothes.
“I live in southeast Washington, which is demographically diverse, but the laundromat itself is located in a community of concentrated poverty. When I’d go, I’d see a lot of restless and bored young children running around and trying to get their parents’ attention. The parents would sometimes end up yelling at the kids. I noticed there was an absence of books and reading, and I thought, ‘Wow, books would give the children something to do, the parents would be less stressed, and the environment would change for the better for everyone.’
“So I took the idea of reading with the kids and giving them the books to the Daughters of the King, Annunciation Chapter,” Johnson says. “My sister Daughters said yes immediately and said, ‘Let’s get this thing off the ground!’”
Johnson and the Daughters were up to something greater than improving the atmosphere in her laundromat. They knew that reading proficiency was critical to academic success, and that children from poor neighborhoods in the District often lagged behind other students. As a study published in 2014 would demonstrate, only 13 percent of children from low-income families in the District were reading at grade level, compared to 61 percent of children from wealthier families—the largest income-based gap in the nation. Literature and Laundry was perfectly situated to help some of those struggling students.
It took some time to pull together all the pieces. Johnson talked to the owner of the laundromat and another member of the Daughters, a lawyer, wrote up a legal document, which the owner gladly signed. Because the Daughters of the King bylaws prohibit fundraising, they raised money for the books through the Episcopal Church Women at St. Timothy’s. The reading ministry kicked off in February 2013. When the laundromat that first housed the reading program closed in 2014, Literature & Laundry moved to the owner’s other facility on Dix Street, Northeast, not far from St. Timothy’s.
“We have events in which the cost of admission is a new book,” Johnson says. “Just last November we held a book fair at Barnes and Noble and raised money for a lot of books for the initiative. Barnes and Noble has been a great partner.”
Typically, anywhere from two to six children are at the laundry on a given Sunday, and approximately 135 children have participated in the project.
“It’s a ministry to us as well,” Johnson said. “As Daughters of the King, our rule of life is to pray and serve and evangelize. We try to live the rule with our actions. We try to show that we care. We give brand new books, not gently used. We really want to honor the dignity of the kids and give them something new. The D. C. Public Library donated new books to us through their early literacy program. Each child gets at least one book or more, depending on their appetite.
“What’s consistent over the program’s three years is the joy that it inspires.”
On Sunday, April 19, the two parishes I serve came together for my official installation as rector. This celebration represented more than just the start of a new rectorate; it marked a major milestone in the collaborative relationship that began several years ago between Christ Church (Port Tobacco Parish) in La Plata, Maryland, and Christ Church (Wayside) in Newburg, Maryland. In the years leading up to my call as rector in the spring of 2013, the leadership of both parishes recognized the current and future challenges facing their respective congregations. The long-time rector of Christ Church, La Plata was nearing retirement and the vestry knew the financial resources did not exist to call another full-time rector. Christ Church, Wayside had been without a rector for several years, relying primarily on part-time interims and supply priests for pastoral leadership.
Rather than despair, parish leaders seized on the opportunity to join resources and create a collaborative ministry. Initially, the collaboration focused on planning joint worship services and parish events such as dinners and picnics. As the relationship between both parishes and parishioners deepened, plans were laid to call a full-time rector who would serve both parishes. Indeed, this did involve some sacrifice on the part of both congregations, the most visible of which involved each parish having to move from two services to one on Sunday mornings. The benefits of the collaborative relationship, however, go well beyond the financial and economic and they have far outweighed the sacrifices.
The collaborative approach to ministry has revitalized both parishes through increased energy and creativity. Both parishes have retained their respective cultures and autonomy, but there is a tremendous sharing of new ideas and vision between both congregations. The collaborative relationship has given us the critical mass needed to plan new parish events and outreach opportunities. This year, for example, we participated in Ashes-to-Go for the first time, and plans are now underway for increasing the number of Ashes-to-Go locations throughout the county next year. Members of both parishes have also expressed a decreased sense of isolation that is far too common in many parishes, especially in those churches in smaller communities.
The sense of connection between the two parishes has begun to extend beyond Christ Church, La Plata and Christ Church, Wayside. This collaborative relationship has deepened our understanding of what it means to be part of a connectional church. Both parishes have begun collaborating with the other Episcopal parishes in Charles County to plan new ministries and to advertise these ministries to the larger community. When parish lay leaders speak about ministry, they no longer use the pronouns “we” and “us” to refer to the members of their respective parish only; rather, the “we” and “us” often refer to both parishes and even to our sisters and brothers in other Episcopal parishes throughout the region. What started out as a relationship born of necessity has become a relationship that is bearing rich fruit. Through collaborative ministry, we have come to appreciate more fully St. Pauls’ words to the Corinthian church, “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.” (I Cor. 12:14, NRSV)
On June 2, people across the country will wear orange as a sign of their commitment to curtailing gun violence, and Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde is urging members of the diocese to join in.
“I know it’s not easy to talk about the issues that divide us as Americans, such as gun violence, from the perspective of our Christian faith,” Budde wrote in herrecent blog post. “But we simply must persevere with courage and love. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.’”
The Wear Orange movement began in 2013 after Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old high school student was shot to death on the south side of Chicago. Her friends asked people to honor Hadiya by wearing orange—the color hunters choose for safety—on her birthday, June 2. Their cause was taken up by gun violence prevention groups around the country, who last year promoted the first National Gun Violence Awareness Day.
This year, more than 85 partner organizations, including Bishops United Against Gun Violence, are urging their members and friends to wear orange to commemorate Pendleton’s life and to help pass common sense gun legislation.
Budde and others members of Bishops United are asking Episcopalians and others to:
- Share material such as this post on Facebook and this tweet on Twitter
- Have their picture taken in orange garb on June 2 and posted on social media using the hashtags #WearOrange and #Episcopal
- Follow Bishops United Against Gun Violence on Facebook: Episcopalians Against Gun Violence and Twitter: The Cross Lobby.
Members of the clergy are invited to consider joining the movement to wear an orange stole on Sunday, June 5.
Bishops United also urges Episcopalians to work for common sense solutions to gun violence including: background checks on all gun purchases, handgun purchaser licensing, the passage of a clear, effective statute making gun trafficking a federal crime and the development of smart gun technology.
“One day the tide of violence in this country will turn,” Budde wrote, “when enough people of goodwill persevere in doing what we know is right.”