It was simply meant to be a self-service laundry, a place where people on low incomes could come to wash and dry their clothes for a dollar a load. When she became its director in 2004, Sarah Rinsema-Sybenga ’98 discovered that Sacred Suds in the McLaughlin neighborhood of Muskegon, Mich., was a front: Underneath the laundromat was really a seedbed—a mustard seedbed.
“People are in a laundromat for two and three hours, so you have an opportunity to build relationships,” Rinsema-Sybenga said. “It’s a springboard for community discussion and planning and dreaming.
“In one early fold-clothes-around-the-laundry-table discussion, a group of women was reminiscing about days gone by, when they could borrow an egg across the street, when the whole neighborhood raised the child. So we asked, ‘How do we re-create that?’ Somebody looked out the window and saw this vacant lot that was the hub for a lot of negative activity and said, ‘Why don’t we create a garden?’”
They did. “The point was not so much neighborhood beautification or food production,” Rinsema-Sybenga explained. “It was just rubbing shoulders, getting our hands dirty together.”
From that first community garden grew the Healthy Neighborhood Project: “We used the model that had already worked,” Rinsema-Sybenga said. “We gave out mini-grants to neighbors for whatever they wanted and were organized to do.”
The McLaughlin neighborhood now has seven community gardens, not to mention English classes, computer classes, help with tax preparation, a life skills program and a support/accountability group called The Queens of Loyalty—to name a few of the activities.
“For so long we, as churches, as nonprofits, have come into a neighborhood of poverty and seen everything that’s wrong with it,” Rinsema-Sybenga said. “Those deficiencies are real. But there’s so much more! The people who have lived there a long time have dreams, and it’s their dreams that are going to lead us out of this.”
When people met together at Sacred Suds, another common topic of conversation, Rinsema-Sybenga said, was “the youth and employment for them.”
The response that bubbled up: YEP!—Youth Employment/Entrepreneurship Program. A coordinator was hired to recruit kids off the corners for paid work rehabilitating three vacant houses, houses that will eventually be sold to broaden the neighborhood’s base of homeownership. “These kids are learning marketable skills,” Rinsema-Sybenga said. “They’re setting up bank accounts; they’re coming to other programs we have, like computer classes. It’s amazing the transformation happening in these kids—and, as a result, in their families.”
YEP! is a partnership with the county’s Department of Employment and Training, Goodwill Industries and Bethany Housing Ministries, which has been providing low-income rental housing in the neighborhood for 17 years. In January 2008, Bethany Housing and Sacred Suds merged and, with Rinsema-Sybenga as executive director, became Community enCompass to better coordinate just such partnering programs as YEP!
“With neighbors as our partners and the cooperation of other organizations, we’re starting to see the redemption and restoration of this neighborhood,” Rinsema-Sybenga said. “All our lives are being transformed. It’s a lot of work, but it’s happening—one house, one block, one neighbor at a time. Jesus says that’s how this kingdom stuff happens. It starts small, like a mustard seed, but the seed becomes a plant that is potent and invasive and transformative of its geography.”
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