Founded by my friends, Josh Kwan and Dave Blanchard, Praxis is an innovative organization which exists to equip and resource faith-motivated entrepreneurs “who have committed their lives to cultural and social impact, renewing the spirit of our age one organization at a time.” Rather than aiming to serve all organizations everywhere, Praxis works within very defined constraints: They serve 12 nonprofits and 12 businesses each year. And not just any business or nonprofit. Even within that broad definition, Praxis holds high levels of specificity of entrepreneurs who thrive within the Praxis community. Kwan and Blanchard believe they can add the most value at particular stages of the organization’s lifecycle. Each year, the number of quality applications exceeds the number of available slots they have open. More than once, candidly, Praxis has declined to pursue an opportunity I’ve proposed to them. Be it new partners they could work with or nominees we think they should consider for the program, we’ve regularly been denied. At times it’s been frustrating. I’m a mentor with Praxis, after all, and wonder why I don’t have more sway! But, Praxis is a temperance-practicing organization. Nobody who knows Praxis’ team and vision would accuse them of having their sights set too low or of being risk-averse. They’re growing and expanding in unique ways each year. But their growth is within the boundaries of their vision and guided by clear constraints. This posture of temperance creates the opportunity for them to invest deeply in the lives of the entrepreneurs, staff members, donors, and investors they serve. One way this manifests is in how they celebrate. Part of what makes Praxis events unique is their “pitch night,” where the 12 entrepreneurs share the vision of their organizations in five minutes or less. Even in this setting, they’re challenging these entrepreneurs to distill their organization into five minutes or less. They’ve seen this constraint generate creativity and punchiness simply not realistic in an hourlong address.
Praxis pitch night (photo credit: Praxis web site)
In these pitch sessions, they’re sharing their vision with potential high-impact donors and investors. And, Praxis appropriately celebrates the courage it takes to do so. Without fail, when the pitch night concludes, the pizza arrives. And, the cohort of entrepreneurs and mentors heartily celebrate this key milestone in the Praxis journey. In a surprising way, instilling clear constraints and limits seems to allow the celebration to hold more meaning. When every meal is a feast, no meal is. Likewise, when an organization practices temperance, it makes indulgence all the more special. Their first cohorts began in 2010. Since then, their fundraising revenue, staff size, and organizational reach have grown steadily and surely. Who knows? Praxis might double their constraints this year, expanding to serve 48 entrepreneurs. They might stop holding pizza parties. They might begin enacting all of our wonderful ideas for how they can expand. But they won’t do it because they can, but because they should. Leaders like Dave Blanchard and Josh Kwan practice temperance. And, they provide examples of how we can too.
“God calls us to do unsafe stuff. Hard stuff. These are people who really need help. Somebody has to go. If I have a skill that can help, I can’t pretend it’s just not happening. Many said I was stupid and crazy to go back to Liberia. But, people were dying.”
Kelly Sites never imagined she would be one of the first medical responders to the Ebola crisis in Liberia. But, when the outbreak began, she couldn’t not respond. She took two trips into the epicenter of the Ebola crisis, serving as a nurse to patients afflicted with the disease. On her first trip, only two of the hundreds of patients they treated survived. But she served these men and women with dignity and grace, allowing the love of God to flow through her.
Kelly Sites in Ebola-treatment center in Liberia
A friend introduced me to Kelly and her story brought the Christian faith into the best possible light. Sites, a mom and part-time nurse from Michigan, lives an obedient life. She stewards all God has given her for the benefit of the most vulnerable in the world (full interview posted at Leadership Journal). This posture of obedience is not an unfamiliar one in the history of the Church, evidenced perhaps most clearly in the genesis years of the Church.
In the first century, the world was aflame. Plagues had wiped out nearly a third of the entire Roman Empire. When plagues struck, it crippled Rome at its very core. Thucydides, a prominent Roman historian, wrote depressingly about the effects.
“[People] were afraid to visit one another…they died with no one to look after them; indeed there were many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of any attention…. The bodies of the dying were heaped on top of one another, and half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water.” Rodney Stark, professor of sociology and religion at Baylor University, wrote about these days in The Rise of Christianity. In an attempt to determine how “how the obscure, marginal Jesus Movement became the dominant religious force in the Western world in a few centuries.”
As he examined historical literature, Stark came across countless resources lauding the role of the Church in responding lovingly to the plagues. When things seemed most dire, Stark wrote, the Church was at her very best. Dionysius, one of the early church fathers, wrote this in year 260:
“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ…many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.”
As the Roman Empire wilted, when people were at their most desperate, God’s people stormed into the pain. Into the heart of sickness and death. Historians describe the flight of Rome’s powerful and wealthy away from those afflicted with the plague. Christians went the exact opposite direction. They infected themselves for the sake of their neighbors, even those who despised them.
And there were many who did.
The Roman Emperor, Julian, who loathed and murdered many Christian leaders, hated that these followers of Jesus did what the pagan priests and his government officials would not do, saying they “support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”
But no matter the force of the persecution and marginalization of Christians in early Rome, they kept serving each other and their neighbors with grace. Two thousand years later, Christianslike Kelly Sites carry forward this tradition. In profound ways, they are the first responders to the world’s worst fires. When others evacuate, they stay.
But an obedient Christian life is not always as dramatic as fighting Ebola in Liberia. For many Christians, obedience looks like leading their mattress business in a countercultural way. Or like families choosing to cap their standards of living and giving generously toward their church and other noble causes. Or like churches linking arms across denominational barriers to serve their city’s biggest needs.
In radical gestures and everyday grace, the Church at her best is magnetic to the world around her. In these moments, theological disagreements often fade, as staunch critics stand aghast at the nonsensical generosity, compassion and grace. It was my reaction upon getting to know Kelly Sites. It was Julian’s response when the earliest Christians infected themselves with the plague while they served the sick. And at our best, it should be the reaction all people have when they think of the Church.
Trucks cram our highways during this season. Rushing gifts from one place to another, truckers dash from coast-to-coast, ensuring Christmas gifts make it under the tree.
In a suburb north of Denver, Prime Trailer Leasing manages a fleet of gleaming white semi-trailers. Like the Hertz of semi-trucks, Prime owns and rents its trucks to commercial customers of all varieties. Wes Gardner, the founder and owner of Prime, acknowledges that “semi trailers aren’t glamorous,” but the work his company is doing is anything but mundane.
Gardner launched Prime in 1981. Over time, the company flourished into a thriving regional company with over 100 employees in Colorado and beyond. The company grew steadily. But a few years ago, the company experienced a dramatic rebirth. It wasn’t because of a radical shift. Prime didn’t evolve into a tech company. It didn’t change its focus or bring in a flashy executive team. Instead, Gardner looked intently at Prime and saw his work through a new lens.
“We began to recognize the best thing we could do to help our community, to help our neighbors, was to create jobs,” Gardner said. “Not just jobs, but good jobs.”
Rather than look outside their company, Gardner and his team at Prime started to look inside it. They started thinking intentionally about the people who stepped into the Prime offices each day. They turned Prime into a great place to work and to serve their communities. Morale improved, as Prime’s employees became more invested in their work.
Prime Trailer Leasing (source: Prime web site)
As the renewal unfolded inside the company, Gardner sensed God inviting Prime to take some hiring risks. The company’s strong culture created the perfect environment to become a company of the second chance. “We want to hire people who know how to overcome adversity,” Gardner said. So they did. They launched their “Career Partner Program” and began hiring former gang members, people recovering from addictions, and people in need of a fresh start.
One of their most successful partnerships has been with Hope House Colorado—a ministry to at-risk teen mothers. Prime hired a number of young moms and gave them the dignity of a good job. They surround these teen moms with a supportive team, pay them generous wages, and introduce them to all aspects of his business. The decision has energized the Prime team and created profound opportunities for women not used to getting them. Gardner is quick to admit they’ve made mistakes along the way, but is bullish that this on-the-margin hiring strategy strengthens his company and encourages his people immeasurably.
When faced with a new year, we are all apt to think about the grandiose—new ventures, expanded opportunities—but perhaps we should instead look at what God has already placed in our hands. Throughout scripture, God often commands us to first consider what He has given us. God asks us, “What is in your hands?”
When David went up against Goliath, he turned down Saul’s armor and used his slingshot. When Moses took on Pharaoh, God turned his staff into a snake. When the hungry crowds circled Jesus, he turned what the people had into a feast.
In each case, God used what His people had in their hands to work in miraculous ways. David slew a giant. Moses led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. The disciples fed over 5,000 people. Like Moses and David and Gardner, this new year, perhaps God is asking us to consider what he’s already given us instead of focusing on what we don’t have. To leverage the gifts and assets and abilities he has already entrusted to us. It may not be glamorous, but it sure doesn’t have to be ordinary.
I pushed open the door of Center Court Barbershop and sat down, awaiting my turn. Center Court looked like a proper barbershop should look. Classic swivel chairs lined the mirrors. Longtime patrons, kids and adults alike, chatted about local news. Nobody rushed or hurried, despite the wait.
I stopped at Center Court on my way through Indiana, randomly finding it on my route through Wabash, Indiana. My barber, Jeff, recognized I was a first-time guest. We exchanged pleasantries and he then shared openly about why he had gotten into the business. He tried other careers, he said, but barbering was the first job that felt right.
“I take a lot of pride in what we do here,” Jeff shared. “We believe in the classic barbershop and the craft of it.”
He finished the haircut with an old-fashioned hot shave, carefully maneuvering his straight blade. He finished my cut and as he swept the floor, he handed me a Sharpie so I could sign their customer wall. I found an empty spot at eye-level and wrote “Chris Horst, Denver, CO” alongside hundreds of other signatures.
Center Court Barbershop (photo credit: Company web site)
I walked out of Center Court freshly attuned to why we celebrate small business in this country. Jeff knew his customers by name. He understood their needs and cultivated community while he worked. The barbershop’s core ingredients—its people, rituals, ambiance and craftsmanship—blended together perfectly. But I do wonder what differentiates the small business experience and reputation from that of their larger counterparts.
For over forty years, Gallup has tracked American confidence in our largest cultural institutions, such as the military, our medical system, public schools, and organized religion. The results are fascinating. Ranking second behind only the military, small business enjoys high levels of confidence from the American public. On the flipside, ranking near the bottom since the time Gallup began the study, is “big business.”
American Confidence in Institutions (source: Gallup)
So when do businesses transition from small to big? At what point do enterprises grow from loved to scorned? I’m not asking for a scientific answer. I know there area lot of helpful definitions about what qualifies as small and big business. But survey respondents aren’t given specific parameters. They’re just asked to instinctively react to these labels.
I’ve wondered how this plays internationally as well. When we share the story of a hardworking Rwandan entrepreneur like Jacqueline, who bootstrapped her way from destitution to sustenance, it’s easy to rally around her. Her story is deeply personal and tangible. Though Jacqueline’s current wages are still modest, I will rise early to shout her story from the rooftops.
On the flipside, when I learned my friend’s company recently opened a production warehouse in Vietnam, I shrugged. Though he paid generous wages and provided financial stability to dozens of poor Vietnamese breadwinners, my emotions stood unstirred.
I have some guesses to why this dynamic exists. Small businesses feel more human. Big businesses seem faceless. Startups feel approachable. Corporations seem impenetrable. And then there’s the “headline factor.” If a three-person plumbing company installs a faulty toilet, only a few will ever know about it. If a Fortune 100 company mistreats an employee or, like my beloved Target, has a credit card security breach, it’s front-page news. Everywhere.
In his book, The Coming Jobs War, Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, looked at Gallup’s volumes of global research and came to this conclusion: The most significant global issue in our time—more pressing than even environmental degradation or terrorism—is job creation. “If countries fail at creating jobs,” says Clifton, “their societies will fall apart. Countries, and more specifically cities, will experience suffering, instability, chaos, and eventually revolution.”
The Arab Spring has put this on full display, with many experts pinning the revolutions not primarily to religious or political conflicts, but to youth joblessness. To address the deep and stubborn issues of unemployment and poverty around the world, we’ll need enterprise, both big and small. We’ll need the mom-and-pops and the multinationals to put the world’s population to work. We’ll need Jacqueline, the community barbershop, and Target.
Nothing new needs to be written about Duck Dynasty. Trust me on this one. For those of you who have been unable to keep up with the wide swath of commentary on the issue, I’ve compiled a list of some of the most thoughtful responses to the issue. It’s not everyday the story of a Christian entrepreneur’s religious convictions are the week’s leadingnewsstory (though, a similar story hit last year). This is one of those stories. And the surrounding issues are both significant and newsworthy, even if this has already been hyper-blogged.
Source: Arts & Entertainment
I’ve chosen these summaries not because I agree with everything these authors have written here (and elsewhere), but because I think they each had something important and unique to say. Kate Tracy (Writer at Christianity Today) with a summary of the entire saga, including the most-recent updates:
While A&E’s suspension of Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson for labeling homosexuality a sin in a GQ interview is attracting widespread attention today, what could prove equally interesting is how the cable network responds to surging online petitions supporting the reality TV star.
Russell Moore (President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission) on why the decision by A&E to censor Phil Richardson is both misguided and intolerant, even if it is absolutely their right to be able to hire and fire whom they choose, based on the A&E institutional moral compass:
Let’s have the sort of cultural conversation that allows us to seek to persuade each other, not to seek to silence one another with intimidation. That’s what real diversity is all about… Let’s have genuine diversity, meaning let’s talk honestly with one another about what we believe and why. Muting one another isn’t what debate is for in a free society.
Why is our go-to political strategy for beating our opponents to silence them? Why do we dismiss, rather than engage them? One of the biggest pop culture icons of today just took center stage to “educate” us about sexuality. I see this as an opportunity to further the discussion…GK Chesterton said that bigotry is “an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition.” If he is right—and he usually is—then I wonder if the Duck Dynasty fiasco says more about our bigotry than Phil’s.
Rod Dreher (Senior editor of The American Conservative) on how to handle the insensitivity and complexity of issues of race in this country:
Anyway, one thing I’ve learned from where I grew up, and from all my travels, is how easy it is to demonize people, and how short-sighted and stupid it is. We all do it. We shouldn’t. All of us have had to sit at Thanksgiving tables and listen to uncles or cousins or family friends say dumb, even ugly, things about Those Not Like Us. Sometimes we speak out against it. Other times we hold our tongues and reproach ourselves later for our silence.
Robertson got in trouble, for once in TV history, for making the subtext text — for being explicit about the conservative Christianity that, when it was subtext, was a selling point for him and for his show… And, once you take any kind of action on that, you’ve got the opposite problem — with deeply religious viewers who like the Robertsons for their faith. They’re going to see it as you punishing him for saying out loud what he believes, and maybe for what they themselves believe, and what they believe is the word of God. You’re punishing him, in their eyes, for being one of them.
Wesley Hill (Assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity School and author of Washed and Waiting) on why Phil Robertson’s comments on sexuality are coarse and insensitive, even if we agree with his theological positions:
No one who takes seriously the mysteries of human nature and all the ways our hearts are opaque, even to ourselves, would say that embracing a Christian view of marriage and sexuality could ever be a matter of saying, “Gee, Phil, I’d never thought of it that way before, thanks!”And making that point is also a matter of speaking up for Christian orthodoxy in the public square.
We want you to know that first and foremost we are a family rooted in our faith in God and our belief that the Bible is His word. While some of Phil’s unfiltered comments to the reporter were coarse, his beliefs are grounded in the teachings of the Bible. Phil is a Godly man who follows what the Bible says are the greatest commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Phil would never incite or encourage hate.
I’m sure I’ve missed some great commentary, but these were the essays I found most helpful. I pray the escalation of the culture wars will continue to be tempered by the likes of the even-handed voices I’ve quoted above.