Washed by the Water

Washed by the Water

By Sarah Whitman/Tampa Bay Faith

Jason Sowell remembers driving to the Tampa airport, looking out his car window and questioning which direction God wanted him to go.

As a youth pastor in the early 2000s, he often boarded long flights overseas to help people in need.

At the same time, he felt a calling to serve Tampa’s own.

“I was always going on missions to other countries, which I loved, but I’d also look out the window and think, ‘Some people right here as just as bad off as where I am going, ‘ ” Sowell said.

In 2008, Sowell founded Current Initiatives, a non-profit organization offering ‘hope’ to local financially insecure families and individuals.

One of the non-profit’s most successful efforts is its Laundry Project, which raises donations and places volunteers in local laundry mats to pay the cost of a wash for customers.

The project, which garnered national attention and has extended into 11 additional states, recently took on new meaning in the midst of a pandemic. More than 850 families have washed close to 9,000 loads in 14 weeks.

“People have always been thankful but the experience has been much more emotionally charged,” Sowell said. “It’s been like a weight being lifted off people, just in being able to have clean clothes.”

I spoke to Sowell about Current Initiatives and serving Christ outside the church.

You started in ministry. Did you always have a heart for serving?

I grew up in church and the church world. My parents were both first-responders. I always knew I wanted to do something to help people. So, I took the spiritual route with it. I went to seminary. In 2000, I moved to Tampa to help open Lifepoint Church (now The Gathering). I was there five years and then I left to help start Relevant Church in Ybor City.

I was a youth pastor. I was always big in missions work. We traveled and did things like helping build churches, which was important. Still, I started leaving these places feeling like, ‘Yes, this is great what we did but we didn’t do the more basic things for people like help them get medication they didn’t have access to.’ I wanted to do something more tangible.

How did Current Initiatives originate?

A lot of the teens I had ministered to as a youth pastor were in college, so I started Current Initiatives as an on-campus college ministry in 2008. It grew from there. We did our first laundry project in 2009.

With Current Initiatives I’ve really operated in this middle ground between a religious and non-religious organization. I’m a pastor, and kind of like being a doctor, it never goes away. Still, we have people of all faiths and a few proclaimed atheists involved in volunteering.

How do you share the Gospel working in that middle ground?

It’s made my faith a little more tactile and less theoretical. I’d rather not buy a church building and use that money to do things like go be in laundry mats. I tell people, ‘I think God cares about something as simple as you being able to do your laundry.’ Conversations start.

The ways I share my faith now are more organic. That’s really what I saw from the Gospels in how Christ operated. Most of the time, Jesus tackled someone’s tangible problem right out of the gate and that led to discussing faith. Sometimes he just healed, moved on and let the act speak for itself.

You’ve been doing this project for years? What about it has changed since the pandemic began in March?

It’s been so interesting. I’ve always said we try to turn laundry mats into hope dealers. Since the pandemic, it seems to me like that hope has become more visible. Few things are normal right now that people can grab onto. Something simple like having clean clothes and being in a safe, clean environment. It has become more emotionally charged.

We put a pause on the project at the beginning. Then, we went to the City of Tampa and said, ‘We think laundry is an essential business. How can we keep doing this and do it safely.’ They gave us a plan according to the guidelines.

Current Initiatives now has branches in multiple states. How did that happen?

Really, it was weirdly organic. The only other state I originally wanted to start a project in was Las Vegas. A national news story caught the attention of a college student. He contacted us and asked, ‘Can you help me do this in Ohio?’ People from here would move out of state and start a branch where they moved. It expanded from there.

You also have a podcast, Boldy Going. What inspired the side venture?

I think I started it in 2016. I don’t preach as much as I used to and I really missed some of those conversations. I saw all these people doing incredible things to better the community and not really getting noticed. I was interested in their stories and what they were doing. That’s what the podcast came from.

For more information, visit engagecurrent.org.