Looming high above busy Broadway Avenue in downtown Denver stands a historic mansion that until recently was rapidly losing the grandeur of its youth. Once a pristine residence, years of neglect resulted in the brick Victorian’s slow conversion into a neighborhood eyesore and a hotbed for drugs, violence, and other illicit activities.
Providence Network – Dry Bones Transformation Home
But when Derek Kuykendall stumbled across the property, all he saw was opportunity. As executive director of Providence Network, a faith-based transitional housing organization, he believes in redemption stories. Through a series of remarkable events, Providence Network purchased the home with plans to rehabilitate it for men and women rebuilding their lives.
But they did not go at it alone. Kuykendall desired to do more than expand the boundaries of his organization.
“Our friends Matt and Nikki Wallace lead Dry Bones, an organization serving Denver’s homeless street youth community,” Kuykendall shared with me while we toured the property. “Together, we began to dream about what it might look like if we brought multiple organizations together under one roof.”
Providence Network didn’t know much about youth homelessness. Dry Bones didn’t know much about transitional housing. But they’re now learning from each other as they serve one of Denver’s most vulnerable populations in this restored mansion.
In this flophouse-turned-home, 12 formerly homeless youth will move in when the property rehab concludes in September. In this home, these youth will live in community with six staff members, a team hailing from both organizations. To further support their residents, they’ll partner with Purple Door, a non-profit coffee shop and roastery focused on employing and job training the at-risk kids who live here.
Together, these three faith-based organizations will work to leverage each other’s respective strengths. Together, they will serve these 12 residents better together than they ever could have apart. This joint venture is a picture of institutional humility, each organization recognizing its own strengths and limitations.
“At the Dry Bones fundraising banquet, Matt Wallace invited me to share about Providence Network. He welcomed me up, lauding all the great things about my organization,” Kuykendall said. “Anyone that works for a nonprofit knows how crazy that is. He invited me, the executive director of a “competing” organization, to share about our work at their gala. That just isn’t normal. It doesn’t happen.”
Matt Wallace and Derek Kuykendall
Last week, I toured the mansion with Derek Kuykendall. With each step, I grew increasingly excited. Derek was right. What was happening under this roof was entirely abnormal. It was remarkable. But I began to wonder what might be possible if this spirit of collaboration became normal. What might happen happen to our communities–and to us–if this sort of partnership wasn’t surprising?
Nonprofits love to talk about our commitment to partnership and collaboration. But in practice, we’re really bad at looking beyond our organizational boundaries. There are very few incentives to invest outside our walls. But big problems–like addressing youth homelessness in a city like Denver–will require we do so.
For Christians, doing so should be assumed. Our faith demands concern ourselves with the Kingdom, not our little kingdoms. And Jesus gave up all fame and fortune and notoriety on behalf of others. Our organizations should do the same. And in an old mansion in Denver, this hope and promise comes closer to opening its doors.
“I wake up pumped that I get to go to work. It’s a perfect fit for me.”
You might assume that Dave Collins spends his days in a high-powered, prestigious profession, but the Colorado native’s job is simply to keep a hotel lobby clean and answer room calls. Collins, 57, is a housekeeper at the Denver Marriott, a 600-room business hotel next to the Colorado Convention Center.
His joy in serving Marriott guests starts with his own journey. Two years ago, Collins reached a low in his battle with alcohol abuse. He lost his job, then his home, before checking into the Denver Rescue Mission, a large faith-based nonprofit.
“I shouldn’t even be alive for all I did,” Collins recently told me. “God had a plan for me, though. As Jerry Garcia said, ‘What a long, strange trip it’s been.’ Everything I’ve gone through has been to make me who I am and put me here to serve others.”
As someone who has known life without a place to live, he understands others wanting a place to call home, even if for one night.
Collins, the son of a military father, has lived most of his life in Colorado, growing up near the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He worked warehouse jobs for close to 25 years before his renewal of faith and transition to Marriott.
Kindness exudes from Collins’s face as we meet over lunch at the hotel lobby café. Housekeepers, front desk staff, and waitstaff stop by to say hello. Collins, who celebrated one year on the job last month, is like a celebrity among his co-workers.
“When does a job feel meaningful? Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others,” writes contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton.
Generating delight and reducing suffering is at the center of Collins’s work. Hospitality is an industry, but for Collins it’s also a posture. Sharing the Latin root word as hospital and shelter, hospitality defined simply is caring for people. Collins cites God’s admonitions to Israel to provide for sojourners and travelers as the primary source of motivation for his own work. Throughout the Old Testament, he notes, we read countless examples of God instructing his people to make provisions for sojourners. For those on the path from one place to another.
Collins serves guests in the ways he has experienced Christ serving him on the cross and in the ways fellow Christians have demonstrated hospitality. The community at Denver Rescue Mission helped him rekindle his faith and gave him shelter when he had none. Their aptly named Work Therapy program introduced Collins to housekeeping.
Also significant in Collins’s life has been Fellowship Denver, an Acts 29 church founded in 2006. He credits the church’s small group for much of his progress. They helped him purchase clothing for his Marriott interview. Each week, he joins the group to study the Bible, pray, and enjoy good food.
“Dave has such gratitude for God’s grace and the miracle God’s worked in his life,” said small group leader Patrick Creedon.
Cleaning hotel rooms can be dirty business. Spring breakers and partiers show fleeting concern for the housekeepers responsible to clean up after them. From Colorado’s rowdy April 20 (“4/20”) celebrators to friends looking for the quintessential “hotel party,” staff see it all. Collins has encountered rooms packed with extra sleepers, intoxicated guests, and everything in between.
Recently a guest contracted debilitating food poisoning, and the sickness created a mess throughout the room. Collins chose to see the unpleasant situation as an opportunity.
“I changed her sheets for her and asked if there was anything I could do,” he said. “Our restaurant sent up crackers and water, and we tried to make her as comfortable as possible.”
Low pay is another challenge for many in the hotel industry. Marriott recently rolled out a global tipping initiativeto encourage guests to tip their housekeepers. But even with tips, salaries for the 444,200 housekeepers nationwide average $22,740, below the national poverty line for a family of four. According to Collins, though, his salary and benefits exceed his expectations and are sufficient for his needs. It is the culture, he says, not the compensation, that makes his job meaningful.
Culture of Service
A service-centered culture anchors the world’s best hotel chains. Marriott and its Ritz-Carlton luxury hotel chain are considered by analysts to be the industry standard bearer for customer service, regularly topping charts from bothemployees and guests. The secret to these hoteliers ensuring housekeeping work is meaningful, not menial, lies in the way they frame housekeeping. For these companies, purpose starts with elevating the dignity of service. Ritz -Carlton refers to all their staff members as “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.”
In his important management research, Daniel Pink outlines the three ingredients of motivating employees: purpose, autonomy, and mastery. For social workers, counselors, and pastors, deriving meaning from work isn’t so hard. For men and women stocking toiletries and scrubbing toilets, finding meaning can be more elusive. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton have attempted to solve this by stressing that meaning can be found in all types of work.
In the broader “faith and work” movement, the overriding focus is on professional and white-collar jobs.Overlooked are the millions of people not working in cubicles or office towers. For many Christians, particularly, the work of our hands—in construction, housekeeping, machining, and cooking—is often cast as less eternally or socially significant than work done from laptops and lecterns.
In an age of unprecedented choice for the educated and privileged labor force, meaning is defined almost exclusively by what workers do, not by how they do it or by who they do it for. Collins, though, sees his work as an extension of his love for Christ. For Collins and his fellow housekeepers, service is the purpose.
“I feel like I’m a doorway to to show our guests how much they are appreciated,” says Collins.
In these companies, autonomy is emphasized. Managers empower housekeepers to be decision-makers. They entrust housekeepers to figure out how to best serve guests. Housekeepers respond to requests and predict needs based on what they believe will best fulfill the hotel’s mission.
Housekeepers also develop mastery of their craft. Many of Collins’s colleagues are expanding their expertise and breadth of abilities, resulting in little turnover among the 40 members of the housekeeping staff in the past year. The staff who left have taken jobs at other Marriotts.
“I’ve never had a job where I’ve been treated like this, where I’ve been treated this well, where I wasn’t treated like a piece of meat,” says Collins.
Marriott boasts industry-leading employee retention rates. It’s a company few people want to leave. And an engaged workforce is good for business. High levels of employee engagement and a commitment to customer service drive profitability and sustain the good hospitality jobs at companies like Marriott.
After a year of Collins faithfully practicing hospitality, Marriott awarded him for his service. At a swanky banquet hall, he was given the “Employee of the Year” award for his joyful service.
“We’re so lucky to have David here,” said his supervisor, Jonathan Adrian. “We need many more people just like him.”
Steve Swihart, chaplain at Denver Rescue Mission, agrees. “The people he works with have affirmed that the work he is doing is meaningful. He takes absolute delight in serving. He views his work as a ministry, as a way of serving God.”
“I have a lot to do,” reflected Collins. “I need to continue to show God’s love to others. There are a lot of people who haven’t yet seen it.”
This article was initially posted at Christianity Today, as part of a new web series–The Work of Our Hands— I am coauthoring with Jeff Haanen.
It was the frumpiest of carnivals. Ramshackle fencing circled rides replete with burnt-out light bulbs and littered with trash. The tiny, traveling carnival sat in a small section of the parking lot outside our neighborhood Target. My family loved it. As we walked the carnival grounds, we ran into someone we knew, surprisingly. And this meeting, in a parking lot carnival of all places, ushered peace to my soul.
While waiting to board the Fireball ride, my wife, Alli, exclaimed, “Anthony!” Anthony, a first-grader, initially looked surprised, then thrilled, to see Mrs. Horst. He came over and hugged her around the waist. He stepped back, celebrated with his foster mom, and then hugged Alli again. And then again.
I stood to the side, exchanging smiles with Anthony and his foster mom. But inside, my heart grieved as I reflected on Anthony’ story. He was all smiles at the carnival, but this was a fragile little boy.
Alli and Desmond at the Parking Lot Carnival
Anthony began in Alli’s classroom last year, but it quickly became clear he was not yet ready for first grade. He returned for a second year of kindergarten. This year, he was again back in Alli’s first grade class. The second go-around did not start much better. Anthony acted out often. And there were troubling undertones to his defiance. Alli sensed his misbehavior found its roots in something. She soon learned what it was.
The school counselor and principal pulled Alli aside and shared tragic news about Anthony’s childhood: His grandfather was recently jailed. For sexually abusing Anthony and his brother. Anthony’s grandfather started abusing him in the most formative years, before he could even talk.
As a father of a toddler, hearing Anthony’s story caused me to feel a range of emotions. I reacted first with anger, but journeyed to pure lament. Anthony already has the deck stacked against him, I felt. As a minority kid from a single parent home in one of Denver’s toughest neighborhoods, Anthony had all the statistics working against him. Then this. The person closest to Anthony deprived him of his innocence.
Frederick Buechner once wrote, “If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors.”
Anthony did not finish this year in Alli’s classroom. He transitioned to a school better suited for his unique needs. When he walked out of her room for the second time, Alli felt disappointed. As if no progress had been made. But their carnival run-in allowed us to see the joy Alli had brought him in classroom 107. It was a gift.
Yesterday, Alli sent her scholars to summer break. She achieved remarkable academic results for these vulnerable children, but the most significant mark of her work does not show up on test scores alone. It shows up in Anthony’s eyes. And Alejandra’s hugs. And Angel’s endearing letters. This is the joy of my wife’s job. Our little neighbors are seen and known and celebrated in her room.
The moment at the carnival gave me unexpected hope. I will never know Anthony’s pain and I cannot take away the horrors this boy lived. But his huge smiles toward Alli—and the tender eyes of his foster mom—reminded me how grace can pervade even the darkest of places. Might we all find, love and see our neighbors, and reflect the hope of Christ.
First it was rivets and sheet metal. Now it’s mattresses and franchising.
In September, I had the joy of sharing the story of my friends, Steve Hill and Jim Howey, and their metal fabrication business, Blender Products. Christianity Today’s This is Our City project celebrates stories of Christians deploying their unique gifts and skills in all areas of cultures of their cities. At the heart of the project is Jeremiah‘s charge to Christians to “seek the peace of the city.” This is Our City “seeks to spotlight in reporting, essays, and documentary video how these Christians are responding to their cities’ particular challenges with excellence, biblical faith, and hope. ”
This month, that spotlight points on my friends Ethan Rietema and Steve Van Diest. These two were hilarious to interview. They consistently finished each other’s sentences, exuding whimsy as they articulated their unexpected journey from leading campus ministries to launching mattress stores. Below is an excerpt of the story:
Operating in fast-paced metropolitan environments like Denver, Austin and Washington, D.C., Urban Mattress serves customers desperate for a good night’s sleep. Van Diest and Rietema point to a wide swath of research illuminating how a good night’s sleep increases weight loss, decreases stress, and broadly increases wellbeing. They note God’s institution of rest—Sabbath—as an indicator of its importance. If our Creator cared enough to build Sabbath into his schedule, Christians should care enough to think about literal rest in a culture oft deprived of it.
“In our culture, a good night’s sleep is a precious commodity,” Van Diest shared. “And we want to be the very best at providing it.”
Read the full story here.
Ethan Rietema and Steve Van Diest, Urban Mattress
I love entrepreneurs. My grandpa was an entrepreneur and my dad is in business, so I guess you could say it’s in my blood. When missionary pioneer David Livingstone examined the African landscape in 1857, he suggested the two things the continent needed most: Christianity and commerce. The same holds true here. Our country needs the hope of Christ and needs good jobs. I am enormously proud of Ethan and Steve, two men who seek the peace of this city by creating jobs in a profoundly countercultural way.
We are city folk. I’m not sure how or when it developed, but Alli and I love urban living. While we certainly are activists for the joys of the city, we aren’t exclusivists. We love small mountain communities, rolling farmland and the towns outside the city — the suburbs. For us, however, the city is home. And here’s why:
Density: Cities are packed with people. Houses are slammed against each other and apartments are stacked up high. Streets swarm with all stripes of humanity on bicycles, in cars, riding buses and boarding light rail (or, as true urbanists hope: Walking). This people potpourri creates an incredible amount of energy. Weekend days in the city are filled with street festivals, political picketers, farmers markets, sporting events…on top of the normal hustle and bustle.
(photo credit: Lancaster Living)
Culture: We like living in community with folks who look, think and act radically different than we do. It’s not a race issue as much as a variety issue. Our neighbor, Vicky, has lived in our flavorful neighborhood for 45 years. She’s a widowed, African-American great-grandmother who has lived through the civil rights era and has spent a life watching the streets where we now live. There is a Latino entrepreneur who peddles his tamale varieties while peddalling his bicycle through our neighborhood. It’s a joy to be surrounded by people and perspectives from different age brackets, cultures, faith backgrounds, and educational levels.
History: Our cities are like living memoirs, filled with stories, buildings, scars, and relics of our country’s past. We love the aging homes, ornate old church buildings, and the stories of our city’s yesteryear. The richness of these stories is woven through the tree-lined streets and historic neighborhoods–and the people who walk them.
Need: In 1900, 9% of our world’s population lived in cities. In 2000, that percentage exploded to 50%. Where there are lots of people; there are lots of challenges. Cities, and uniquely so in our country, are poor. We are drawn to live in tough neighborhoods because we feel called to do so.
City living is the hip thing to do these days. But, for the above reasons, I don’t think that we are living here (solely) because its cool. I just think it happens to be that many people share some of these same appreciations. But, either way, we love it.