A Gospel of Skin: God at the Laundromat
A Gospel of Skin: God at the LaundromatSarah O'Malley
I’m sure that God lives here
At Super Suds,
A former 7-Eleven
In the town that changed around me
Then sent me off to change
By the highway where I rode my bike,
Foolishly, for love. God lives here,
And offers drying free with the wash,
Open well past last call
And before first shift
Asking about my sneakers,
Laughing at my pace
As if there’s somewhere else
I ought to be.
Anxiety is exercise,
I joke. God is
Telling me a story,
Unwrinkling. God is
Glass walls, plastic seats, steam,
Bare legs, children
Flickering in fluorescence.
God is tired. God smells sweetly
Of soap and sweat. God is the game
On the TV, and the folded women
For their load to be finished,
For the babes to tire, too,
So to bundle them in warm cotton,
And carry them to bed.
—“The Laundromat,” Sarah O’Malley, 2023
The most spiritual thing I can imagine is the mundane, physical realm. Just as clouds don’t seem to matter much without the container of the sky, I refuse a mysticism that does not fundamentally require attention to life—our life, filled with our garbage and our weather and our sandwiches—in order to exist. I have spent a decade tossing, turning, and raging against the multi-headed monster of organized Christianity, a Hydra of hypocrisy, violence, and scandal. Yet, in the words of a friend, I remain “haunted by transcendence.” Here, in the slurry of earth and spirit, I find my “gospel of skin.”
The word “gospel” means “good news,” and, nowadays, our bags of bones and flesh might be the only one in which I can still believe. Lofty abstractions of morality, goodness, and truth feel at odds with communion, the touching palms of company, the body, and the blood.
In my gospel of skin, proximity replaces the pulpit. The curtain between holy and unholy spaces has been torn, the chasm between podium and pew made irrelevant. To be where the people are is to be in the presence of God—on the street corner, in the cocktail chatter, laughing at fart jokes, and crying in parked cars. After all, Jesus Christ himself healed through the touch of his hands, his spit, and the hem of his garment. If the story is true, it is his spirit-made-bodily that allows us to know God. God made us in their image and then made Godself into ours.
Recently, on the good suggestion of a friend, I’ve been exploring the faith of my late ancestors, the Celtic peoples of Ireland. Scholars have debated the degree to which this can be proven, but it is believed that, as Christianity entered Ireland in the early Middle Ages and began to mix with the native “heathenism” (a word which originally comes from “wandering of open land,” or, “heath” but which has become synonymous with “pagan”), the Celtic converts to Christianity developed a fundamentally different interpretation of earth-dwelling divinity than many of their Roman counterparts.
While the Roman elite relied on the subjugation of people in order to maintain power, hierarchy, and, ultimately, empire, the Celts perceived inherent dignity, and thus, a shared divinity, among all living things. Their temples were raised from the dirt and their care for the sacred earth mirrored their compassion for one another. Women, in particular, were given greater equality and respect than in Rome’s patriarchal framework. As written by John Philip Newell, author of Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul: Celtic Wisdom for Reawakening to What Our Souls Know and Healing the World, "In Celtic wisdom, the sacred is as present on earth as it is in heaven, as immanent as it is transcendent, as human as it is divine, as physical as it is spiritual."
In uncovering the curious questioners from whom my blood runs, who find reverence to be simple and accessible, as close as the ground below us, I feel comforted and known. My gospel of skin is also a gospel of dirt. It is a gospel of break rooms. It is a gospel of yardsales. It is a gospel of potlucks. It is a gospel of playgrounds. Because wherever there is life, there is God.
In Washington, DC, I’m pretty far from the heath, but I find divinity in the dirt and skin I have around me. I see God at the laundromat. Each precious soul, tending to regularity, is one of 7 billion fractals of heaven. From the screaming child to the giggling roommates, to the 85-year-old neighbor, we are bodies in the image of Spirit—transcendent, human, and divine.
The most widely adopted teachings around the gospel of Christ in our Western context center on substitutionary atonement, with a wide aperture focus on our salvation as its result. In her piece and poem, Sarah presents a decisive reorientation for our time: the idea that perhaps the most healing and mandate-worthy beauty of the gospel isn't necessarily our salvation at the end of Cavalry's road but the radical proximity that enabled and fueled that atonement. Perhaps our best hope isn't in knowing how the story ended to save ourselves. But instead in noticing how it was lived. So we might live well with one another—all "7 billion fractals of heaven"—come what may.
Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo