Thirty first-graders sat in a circle on the floor. One by one, they each shared tenderly.
“I love Marcos because he is a great soccer player,” Shanté shared, fighting back her emotions.
“I love Marcos because he sometimes doesn’t hit me when he’s mad,” Lucas remarked.
“I love Marcos because he makes us laugh,” Diego reflected.
It was Marcos’ last day in 107, my wife’s classroom. And his fellow first graders shared their favorite Marcos memories as a tribute to the boy who was with them for the first half of the school year. They spoke candidly, not skirting around the reality: Marcos wasn’t well behaved. In fact, he was a full-on troublemaker. But he was “107”. He was a friend. And they knew Marcos for who he was, not the trouble he caused.
He lugged a heavy reputation with him to his first day of school. It was his first day in 107, but not his first time in first grade. He had been held back for another go around. And he quickly lived up to his billing—chucking chairs, hitting students and disregarding Mrs. Horst’s instructions with regularity.
Marcus has lived through more pain in six long years than I have my entire life. As a child, his father pitted him against his older brother in the cruelest of ways. He would often provoke Marcos and his brother to physically fight each other for a bag of Doritos. Like a cockfight, he heckled as the two punched and wrestled each other.
In and out of foster homes, Marcos carried so much pain into 107 that first day. And many times, he acted out of his wounds. Wounds deeper than any little boy should have. Behind the tough guy façade, though, Marcos was still a little boy. And a very tenderhearted one at that.
While many days were tough, the glimpses of hope surfaced increasingly through his semester in 107. I remember Marcos fondly. Once, I brought our two-year-old son, Desmond, in as a surprise classroom guest. Marcos and Desmond hit it off instantly. Marcos read book after book to Desmond, disregarding instructions to return to his desk because of how absorbed he was in the stories he read. He was Desmond’s hero that day. And mine too.
During his last-day tribute, Marcos’ foster mom brought cupcakes for him to give to his classmates. He handed them out with pride, forgetting to even serve himself. As he proudly hugged each of his fellow students on his way out, the mood was somber, yet hopeful. Marcos was 107. And these were his friends.
This is what we should be about. Marcos arrived with a label, but left with a strut. He belonged. He didn’t leave with straight laces, but he left knowing he was loved. At our best, Christians reclaim what the world says is not worth the trouble. We are never without hope. We look past what is and see what could be.
It might be in a classroom, with a sensitive troublemaker like Marcos.
It might be in a thrift store, where people coming out of prison and homelessness are given a chance to work.
It might be in real estate, where a developer pieces together underused properties and brings a bold new use to the land.
It might be in the delivery room, where parents lovingly welcome Down syndrome children, a choice made by just eight percent of parents with Down syndrome babies.
It might be in Jesus, who cobbled together a rough-hewn team of fishermen, tax collectors and hotheads to start his Church.
Barry Clark – Weston Snowboards
Or, it might be someone like Barry Clark, a friend and entrepreneur who saw opportunity where others saw ruin. I am excited to share Barry’s story. It’s a classic story of American small business, with a healthy dose of Colorado blended in. But more than that, it’s a story of a Christian seeing hope where others saw desolation. I encourage you to read it. And to see the beauty amidst the brokenness in your classrooms, commutes and communities.
The drive up Interstate 70 through the Rocky Mountains is almost apocalyptic, the sprawling forests lining the highway appearing lifeless. The mighty lodgepole pines normally paint a grandiose evergreen backdrop, but today they stand dead in their tracks. Foresters call the killing of Colorado’s pines in recent years a “catastrophic event.”
But fire is not the culprit. Pine beetles consumed millions of acres of Colorado’s pine trees over the past ten years. With their food source now mostly depleted, the beetles are gone, but a visible reminder of their feasting remains.
I-70 spans the Rocky Mountains, guiding visitors to Colorado’s charming ski towns. Outdoor enthusiasts the world over gape at the devastation caused by the pine beetles. But Barry Clark, who has traversed this highway weekly for over 25 years, sees more than ruin.
Read the full story at Christianity Today.
We all love a good entrepreneur story. These stories are threads in the fabric of Americana. From the barbershop owner to the bold inventor like Henry Ford, we love these stories. At their genesis, at least. But do we love when these businesses become big? What about when they start interacting with other businesses in the global marketplace? Do we believe free markets are good news for the poor?
My experience tells me we do not. Indifference is normative, as if commerce exists almost as a nonfactor for the poor. Scorn is the most-vocal response to free market capitalism. I conjure distasteful images when considering concepts like multinational corporations, Big Business, factories, and globalization. Among the images I summon are sweatshops, the 1%, boycotts, child labor and executive caricatures like Mr. Burns.
To combat these images, we create pithy “alternatives” to appease our concerns, frontloading the questionable concepts with nicer adjectives. Small business. Social enterprise. Local business. These clarifiers are good, but when it comes to alleviating poverty, they are tinsel and ornaments. The free market is our tree. When we add clarifiers, the danger can be that we miss the impact of plain ol’ business. Vibrant commerce–in even its most ordinary varieties–is the engine that lifts the poor out of extreme poverty.
By overwhelming margins, free market capitalism has enabled more people to escape poverty than any system in the history of the world. Yale University and The Brookings Institution released a staggering study to join the chorus of research validating this claim: In 1981, 52% of the world’s population was unable to provide for their basic needs like housing and food, living below the “extreme poverty line.” By the end of 2011, just 30 years later, that percentage plummeted to 15%.
Yale and Brookings state the chief reasons for the unprecedented drop are “the rise of globalization, the spread of capitalism and the improving quality of economic governance.” This is the “potent combination” behind the plunging poverty levels. It doesn’t mean the 85% of us above this line are living large—attending college, taking vacations and the like—but it does mean we won’t die from inexcusable and preventable causes like starvation and diarrhea. It makes me wonder: How can we respond to this with indifference or scorn? Why aren’t we shouting this from the rooftops?
Entrepreneurship is not a white lamb, however. Let’s not forget the despots who enslave little girls and trade them across borders like they are bags of grain. These unfathomably evil traffickers are, well, entrepreneurs. As are the drug runners. And we don’t have to look far to know economic prosperity doesn’t alone prosper. And it is in this human brokenness–certainly not unique to any economic system–where immense opportunity lies for the Church, people like Rick who actively war against these evils.
Like all of us, I love to share a good entrepreneur story and I’ve shared many this year, some here and a few at Christianity Today’s exciting This is Our City project. I’ve shared these stories—from pigs to bike helmets—because they are worthy of it, stories replete with bold risks, profound justice and stirring impact.
Entrepreneur in Zimbabwe (source: Luke Boney films)
My grandpa loved people well and it showed in the way he ran his business. Ethan Rietema and Steve Van Diest upend the mattress industry by providing a restful buying experience. Reyna overcame blindness to start a business that now provides for her family. Brian saves lives by selling solar lamps to hundreds of thousands of families around the world. Steve Hill and Jim Howey breathe dignity into what appears to be an ordinary warehouse. These leaders—on construction sites, shop floors and in strip malls—take the mission of God forward. They are not our extras. They are not supporting actors relegated to check-writing and church volunteerism. They are members of Christ’s body, tasked with very important jobs to do.
These remarks are adapted from a talk I gave in Washington, D.C. at Entrepreneurship in the Developing World, an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute: Video | Polished Transcript. The event was a response to Bono’s recent “humbling” observations about the role of entrepreneurship and capitalism in helping the poverty-stricken communities of the developing world.
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.
Three sentences. That’s all it took to know Reyna was extraordinary. I met her just a few days ago. Reyna’s spirit reverberated in her Dominican home and into the heart of this American visitor. And she unsettled me in profound ways with her unassuming heroism.
Reyna’s modest home fronts a dirt alleyway in the town of El Seibo, a busy city in the heart of the Dominican Republic. Life isn’t easy in her neighborhood. Deficient infrastructure, education, and sanitation shackle her community. But Reyna’s smile wasn’t lacking. She approaches life like an eager Coloradan advances on a challenging hike—with vigor, optimism and confidence. Her enthusiasm is surprising because of poverty’s grip on her city. But it is remarkable because of her impairment. Reyna was blinded at the start of her adult life. At the age of 20, Reyna lost her sight.
“God has given me so much. My job is to give back to others.”
An embarrassing lump grew in my throat when she voiced those words. Reyna was a charity case poster child. She could have starred in a Sally Struthers infomercial. Dirty water. Substandard hospitals. Single woman. Blind. But Reyna didn’t see it that way. Her impairment didn’t cloud her identity. Reyna knew she was a strong, purposeful and capable woman. She could see she was designed in the very image of her Creator.
Reyna has unhampered ambition. She launched a business and it grew dramatically. The corner Target, her store provides it all: Rice, flour, cooking oil, toiletries and more. She trusts her faithful clients to pay in full. When new customers stop in, however, she keeps their payments separate till a faithful client stops in to verify. She treats her customers with class and only sells the best products. And her business has grown enormously profitable.
And that’s a good story: The rags-to-riches blind entrepreneur. But Reyna’s story was just beginning. She’s since taken in her sister’s two children and raised them. Her nephew now studies at the Dominican Air Force academy. Her teenage niece aspires to medical school. She is a leader at her church. While she answered my many questions, she interrupted our conversation with a phone call. That might have been rude, but in a very “that’s Reyna” sort of way, the caller was a young woman in her church who was preparing for a surgery and looking for her counsel. Reyna refuses to succumb to, or even acknowledge, low societal expectations.
“God says that, ‘Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord,’ she recounted. “We’re called to be openhanded in our success and that’s what I try to do.”
It’s as if she doesn’t get it. Reyna, I see you as the poor in this proverb. You’re the blind woman in the developing country. She deflects what I might assume about her because she knows what her Father thinks about her. And she’s chosen to share in her success. She extolls everyone to embrace the gifts God’s given them.
“There a many blind people in my city that are not working. Why? They are more than capable. This is a big problem for us.”
Reyna captivated my imagination for the hour I stood in her home. She, of course, had prepared a patented dulce de leche dessert for us. And, of course, she cried several times in gratefulness for all God had given her. It’s what heroes do. Nothing fabricated and no veneers. Reyna was created to create and gifted to gift. No barrier was going to keep her from seeing that.
A few months ago I wrote a reflection on Steve Hill and Jim Howey, two friends who lead a metal fabrication business in Northeast Denver. That blog post grew into a full-fledged article that was published today on Christianity Today’s This is Our City project. This is Our City is my favorite online destination. Last year they profiled another favorite business of mine, Bud’s Warehouse. Here’s the summary of the project:
A new generation of Christians believes God calls them to seek shalom in their cities. These Christians are using their gifts and energies in all sectors of public life—commerce, government, technology, the arts, media, and education—to bring systemic renewal to the cultural “upstream” and to bless their neighbors in the process. No longer on the sidelines of influence, emboldened by the belief that Jesus loves cities, they model a distinctly evangelical civic engagement for the 21st century.
This Is Our City, a multiyear project of Christianity Today, 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. The six cities we are profiling differ dramatically from one another in size, economic climate, ethnic and racial composition, and in their history of Christian presence, leadership or abdication, at crucial moments. But they all have stories worth telling. Wherever we live, we can learn something from these cities about faithfulness to our own place.
It’s the ordinary-ness of Jim and Steve’s business that is the very reason their story needs to be shared. Across our country, entrepreneurs like Jim and Steve add immense value to our society. Quite simply, they just do business the right way: They create jobs, treat their people well, and innovate valuable products and services for their customers. It’s profound work, even if the images of rivets, sheet metal and factories don’t necessarily sing.
Steve Hill & Jim Howey at Blender Products, Inc.
I write extensively about poverty on this blog. An article on metal fabricators almost feels like a distant relative to the poverty conversation. But I don’t see it that way. Steve and Jim aren’t just “business guys.” They are urban ministers, justice workers and artists. Heroic civil rights activist, John Perkins, once said, “Jobs are the world’s best social service program.”
Perkins was right. When we reimagine the entrepreneur, we realize that Jim and Steve’s work is hardly ordinary. It’s heroic. And that’s why I’m thrilled to share it.
There’s a simple reason why manual laborers are called “blue-collar”: The color blue, it turns out, hides dirt better than the white seen in office buildings. But “blue collar” defines more than work apparel, of course. It defines industry, even a way of life. And its stereotypes are often unflattering. But a metal products manufacturer in Colorado is working to undermine those stereotypes, right on the shop floor…
To read the article, head over to Christianity Today.