Domestic Poverty

St. Alban's Underwear Because We Care

February 23, 2016
Domestic Poverty

The people of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davenport, Iowa, have a request that will sound strange when you first hear it. They want your underwear—your clean underwear—and they want to give it away.

Around 30 years ago, a parishioner who worked with the homeless of Davenport stood up during the morning announcements and delivered an important message. She told the congregation that that particular Sunday was her birthday, and that rather than giving traditional gifts, she wanted everyone to bring her a pair of clean underwear to distribute to patrons of the homeless shelter. Several of the homeless and disadvantaged had gone without underwear—a point that surprised the group, perhaps because most people take undergarments for granted. This call to action continued annually at St. Alban’s for many years, though it faded away after some time.

Despite the underwear ministry falling off the docket for some time, it never fell from popular memory. A local priest, new to the area, related it to a chapter meeting of church representatives. Grant Curtis, a parishioner from St. Alban’s, and his priest discussed bringing the ministry back to their congregation—but with plans to expand its scope. Underwear Because We Care was formed with the express mission of delivering undergarments to those without.

In the ministry’s first year of operation, Underwear Because We Care partnered with local churches and schools to collect underpants, socks, brassieres, and undershirts. Though the requests are awkward at first, they were ultimately fruitful; by the end of their campaign, they had collected over 2,000 pieces of clothing. Though they had collected all of these resources, they found that there was not a comprehensive list of organizations serving the poor in their area, to whom they might distribute the garments. With the help of a local women’s shelter, they came up with a list of ten centers that readily accepted the underwear haul. The next year, having wrangled some radio and television advertising, they nearly doubled their returns—setting up 20 drop sites, involving seven local businesses, and collecting 4,300 items. This year, Underwear Because We Care’s third in operation, the campaign has expanded further; there are more than 25 drop sites, as well as 13 churches and 13 businesses that are volunteering to the effort. The number of organizations accepting donations has also increased—to 19. Their goal is to distribute between 8 and 10 thousand garments before the end of October 2014. Additionally, they are seeking prosthetic brassieres for patrons who have undergone mastectomies. Because of their status as a medical device, their price is often out of reach for those who would like them. Grant Curtis, now the director of the campaigns, will readily acknowledge that the ministry is unique. Still, as local homeless services will attest, the need is very real.

Mr. Curtis explains his involvement in the ministry in simple and powerful terms: he is passionate about helping others. Because this ministry is involved in something people rarely think about, it provides an invitation to search out other overlooked needs. In addition to his work with Underwear Because We Care, he volunteers in refugee issues and the fight against human trafficking. Though he officially retired three years ago, Curtis’ wife says that she’s not sure what his definition of “retired” is! The decision to take on this mission was an easy one, he explains, saying, “By the grace of God, I’ve been blessed in my life.” Spreading that grace to others is all a part of our call as Christians.

When asked what he would like the Episcopal Church to know about St. Alban’s Underwear Ministry, he recalls the words of Jesus, saying, “Christ said that what you do to the least of these, you do unto me. The underwear program is doing something positive for the least. The Episcopal Church and the people associated with the program are doing something positive for the least.”

As the ministry moves forward, they’re looking to expand to a full-blown 501-c(3) non-profit organization, partnering across denominations and appointing a board comprised of local leaders and community members. They have been a Jubilee Ministry of the Episcopal Church since 2011.

The Rev. Melanie Mullen

Director of Reconciliation, Justice and Creation Care

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