Friday, July 22, 2016

The problem with religion

Recently a friend mentioned that she was not a religious person, but liked our ministry. I replied by saying I'm not very religious myself. I was trying to be sarcastic and witty, making a cheap, shallow statement to set myself apart from what I assume most people think of when they think “religious”. Mostly negative things.  I did not want to be perceived as negative.  It was immature.  And probably self-righteous.

I shared this story with a fellow missionary, and he essentially rebuked me, saying that I was in fact religious, according to God.

God made everything. He designed it. He designed us to live a certain way. If anyone deserves to define things, it is Him. Mankind will try their best to make their own definitions. This leads to the creation of man-made systems, traditions,, essentially. Games with rules that should be followed.

In stating that I was “not religious”, I was validating a human definition. I was essentially submitting to the game's rules by saying I didn't want to play.

God defines “religion” simply and clearly. “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” [James 1:27 NASB]

Pure and undefiled. In other words, the real meaning, the authentic version. God's religion is involved in caring for the helpless and being unstained by the world. With that said, I am not nearly as religious as I'd like to be.

This “religion” is described elsewhere in scripture. Isaiah 58 is a great example. It paints a picture of a people living out their own religion, prideful and oppressive, and making demands before God. God defies that by declaring the fasting (or religious work) He requires is destroying yokes, caring for the needy, letting oppressed go free, speaking goodness. Jesus declares that to be His follower, we have to lay down our life and take up our cross (crosses kill, you know). That love is an endless act of self-sacrifice.

Instead of accepting man's definition and foolishly exclaiming, “That's not me!”, I should have rejected it, and insisted on recognizing the definition established by the only Person worthy of doing so.

The problem with religion is that it takes your life. It demands it. And yet the act of giving up our life gives us a life much better. A life eternal. And it lifts up those around us.

The problem with religion is that it cannot be self-serving, but only self-sacrificing. It can never exalt our selves, but only ever bring us low. Religion puts us last, in a culture that wants to put us first.

The problem with religion is that it doesn't have a system of weights and measures to balance our actions so we can remain “right” or “favored”. It doesn't have many laws, yet leads us into a perfectly crafted design.

The problem with religion is that it can only be truly defined by its living. It cannot be something that acts from a distance, hoping to control or alleviate. It can only function closely, intimately, in being near to those in distress. It only really works amongst those in need.

The problem with religion is that it becomes claustrophobic in a world where we all want our own space. It takes our things and gives them away. It takes our time and uses it for others. It takes our emotional currency and spends it on those with deeper wounds than ours. It takes our hands and sets them to work that is too big for even our eyes to behold.

The problem with religion is that it snatches away the things we love to hold on to. It constantly turns our eyes away from things we desire. It constantly shows itself worthier than the things we trust. It destroys little rooms that feel safe and known.

The problem with religion is that it becomes confusing in its simplicity. Complicated things are easier to study, to grasp, to wrestle with. Simple things are harder to debate, harder to reject. Religion is stubborn in its bluntness. It is the immovable object opposing the unstoppable force of our pride.

Religion does not provide a lot of options, but presents endlessly inconceivable opportunities of being lived. It is a narrow way, and a straight way, one that starts in death but ends in life.

The problem with religion is that it is so rarely “pure and undefiled.”

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Interviews with Volunteers

Earlier this year, Sun Ministries hosted three groups of volunteers, consisting of individuals and student groups from Georgia, Indiana, Texas, and as close as East St. Louis. They came through a ministry called CityLights, which hosts groups from all over the country, teaching them and sending them to churches, ministries, and individuals throughout the city of St. Louis. They sent us groups three weeks in a row.

We have several ways of engaging volunteers – from scheduled work days open to anyone, to hosting groups in our Leadership center for a week or longer. But regardless of the nature of their time with us, we very much want volunteers and visitors to understand the motivation behind the labor they're engaging in. It is borne out of the Gospel of the Kingdom, the Gospel Jesus preached. Lay down your life, take up your cross, give up your possessions, share your resources, care for those in need, live obediently. We feel that God is doing a unique work here to reform His church and renew the inner cities of America. We've spoken much of the model of pastoring your community, and we are convinced it is the thing God has led us in to. It is also a model whose principles could be taken to other contexts. We do a lot of “contextualizing” for volunteers in order to communicate the idea of pastoring your community. We generally start the time off with a tour of our neighborhood, properties, and businesses, explaining to them the motivations behind our work and the history of the area. For longer projects, we break up teaching into strategic points in our work, using the work to contextualize the teaching, and vice versa. We want volunteers to know why the work exists, but also to go home knowing that they participated in the work God is doing here and helped us care for this neighborhood.

If you are interested in volunteering with us, we have two work days scheduled.  Check our facebook for more info.

I took some time to interview three of the most engaged students from the first of the three groups. Most of our visiting volunteers ask questions, but the questions asked by these groups were incredibly wide ranging, and some were deeper and harder than most. Here is just a sampling of what we were asked over the course of the three weeks:

How do you guard against gentrification?
With all your physical responsibilities, how do you address spiritual development amongst yourselves?
How will you raise up managers for your businesses?
What do you miss most about your former life?
What is true justice, and how do we actively engage in that?
How do you stand against internal pride?
What does recreation look like for you?
Isn't some of this work meaningless?
How do you reconcile things like voting and engaging politics?
Where are your black ministry partners? (and this question we'll return to later)

The questions showed us that some volunteers were yearning and struggling to understand the nature of our ministry and the lifestyle it requires, but furthermore, in my opinion, they were longing to understand their faith and discover how to live that out in the world today, how to resolve Christ's teaching with their concerns and passions.

I interviewed three of the most engaged students to get their thoughts on their time with us. The common, and most prominent, concern of the three students was a lack of African-American leadership in the ministries they witnessed in St. Louis. Racism is no throw-away issue. Besides being a centuries-old problem in the US, it has gained more prominence lately, especially in the St. Louis area.

Josh's Interview

This photo was obviously not taken with an iPhone.  I forgot to get a shot of Josh.

The first volunteer I will introduce to you is Josh Fort. He was the one who asked where our black ministry partners were. Being a young black man himself, I responded with, “Well, you're here.” He was not satisfied with that answer, and likely with good reason. We spent about an hour or so over lunch discussing that question with the whole group, and you will hear that concern mentioned in the other two interviews.

Josh had much boldness, asking us within the first few minutes of meeting us how we avoided becoming prideful and controlling. His boldness, and desire to understand himself, his faith, and what he was observing, led him to ask many solid, probing questions throughout the week.

Josh said, "I appreciate you all's holistic vision for pastoring the community and seeking to develop the community through programs that don't just care for the spiritual needs of the community but also care for the physical needs in tangible and dignifying ways."

Josh explained how the lack of black leadership caused him to question his own ability to become that leader in ministry and elsewhere, dispite a long list of accomplishments and leadership positions. When asked if there was anything that could or should be done to address this lack of diversity, he said yes. “Churches and ministries should seek out leaders in communities and find other minority leaders in other organizations and find ways to work together and serve each other. That racial reconciliation shouldn't look like trying to get other people to become like you, but to move forward in the unity we both have in Christ and serve each other.”

Finally, I asked Josh if he's learned anything. “I've learned that God can work, and accomplish His work in unlikely ways with unlikely people.”

Bria's Interview

Bria had a lot to say, in my opinion, because she had a lot of passion.  When I asked her about her thoughts on her time with us, she said, “Context is really important to me. So, the first day may have seemed really boring to everyone else, but I absolutely needed that, because we had no context coming in before. And so I didn't want to come to a place and feel like I was saving something, you know what I mean? Even though it did take all day, I needed that.”

She said it was very helpful to see not just the buildings we own, but the neighborhood as a whole. She expressed that at other ministries she's been to, there's an assumption that volunteers haven't experienced poverty, or lived in neighborhoods like Hyde Park. However, Bria grew up poor, in Chicago, and has experienced racism. She felt like the expected audience with many ministries were people who had not experienced poverty, racism, and hardship. Because of this, there is the risk on the part of inner-city ministries to assume their audience is ignorant of the realities of race and poverty, and Bria feels like she doesn't have a place in what is being presented. I asked her if there was a way to address this without being belittling or awkward. At first she said she didn't know, but that some preparation with groups to find where they're coming from might be helpful. She also admitted that it might just always be awkward, but it's worth asking. In our discussion of how God is undoing racism through calling people to His design, Bria asked how people respond whenever we discuss topics such as white privilege, noting that the members of her group were not discussing it.

Throughout our time with Bria, she was continuously introducing herself to our employees, shaking their hands, thanking them, asking them questions. This is because she cares for people and truly wanted to connect with and hear from them.

When I asked if she had learned anything, her response revealed even more about her passions, stating that it's okay when you're 100% sure you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, but people don't like you.

Overall, Bria was probably the most vocal and interactive student, and her passion reminded me that I have to be careful to listen to those who have come alongside me to help in the labor.

Tuesday's interview

Finally, I'd like to introduce you to Tuesday Whittington. Though Tuesday was quiet and observant throughout most of the trip, she asked one of the hardest to answer questions, “What is true justice, and how do we live that out in an active way?” Her question was in response to Zechariah 7:9-10, and certainly carried the weight of the pain caused by racism and related issues that have been coming to light recently.

There seems to have been a recurring theme, at least with these three volunteers, of a desire to understand context: to know the motivations behind our work, the way we approach different problems, and really, the root causes and hidden effects of the problems themselves. They all seemed to share a concern for humanity and how best to care for people in the context of the Gospel. Tuesday felt that causes and effects of poverty are generally disconnected from how the church ministers to the poor.

Tuesday also returned to the concern with a lack of black leadership in the ministries she had seen here in St. Louis. All three volunteers seemed to see black leadership as vital to ministering in these areas and preaching the Gospel. I explained to Tuesday how God is using racial tension to bring humility to us, and to those we work with, and to bring to light the things that hide behind racism: pain, fear, doubt, pride, protection, poverty, systemic injustice...and even how cultures affect the gospel and how it is perceived and communicated. These things are present, but seldom explicitly expressed.

Tuesday shared how racial division is close to home for her, as she comes from a racially mixed family. She has seen that the only way to overcome this obstacle is to come together.

My thoughts
In the end, I was extremely grateful for these three young people and their desire to press deeper into obstacles and motivations of ministry, and of simply living with God here on earth. At the end of each groups trip, I asked them a couple questions:

First, What will you do when the honeymoon is over?
By this I mean that there is prevalent in America today a romanticized view of ministry, focusing on our fulfillment, our purpose, our sense of meaning. There is a way to be put on a pedestal, to be admired, to become a celebrity for making good sermons, or writing good books, or doing cool things. There is the even bigger danger of looking to do the thing you really like to do. That may not be the path God has for you for ministry. So what happens after the initial excitement of ministry fades, and it become a daily reality to lay down your life for the sake of others? What happens when it's you and Jesus sitting across the kitchen table from each other trying to make sense of this new life together?

The second question is related: If your church, school, or ministry organization ceased to exist tomorrow, what would your faith life look like?
Are you reliant upon an outside source to give you ministry activity, or even a relationship with God?

Why did you come on this trip?
I'm interested in their motivations, and hope they're aware of them. Perhaps the best answer to that question I've heard is one student who said that the previous year, God had told him to go on a mission trip, and he went to myrtle beach instead. He didn't want to repeat that mistake.

If all you had was the Bible to inform you, what would you desire in church?
We ask this because our motivations for ministry are the same the guide and encourage us in our daily walk with our Lord and fellow Christians. We are looking for God's design, for His working through the Body of Christ to minister here on the earth. If your relationship with God and other believers isn't on a good foundation, then your won't be as effective when you go out into the world to minister.

The interviews were recorded on March 10, 2016.

This recording contains the songs:
“Satellite Kite” and “A Bridge Between” by Beautiful Eulogy, from their album, Satellite Kite, available at Used by permission.
“With Your Eyes” by Enter the Worship Circle. Used by permission of Ben Pasley of Enter the Worship Circle.

“Testimony Song” by Reformation Sound. Used by permission

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Property Maintenance and Lawn Care - Social entrepreneurship, pt 4

In order to pastor a community, you need perspective. A very broad perspective. You have to be aware of what is happening in your neighborhood, city, region. What has happened historically? What are the challenges and opportunities that characterize your community? And most importantly, what do you see God doing?

We have long held the philosophy that, as long as things line up with vision, we walk through whatever doors open before us. God is capable of guiding, correcting, and certainly protecting us. This gives us endless opportunities for learning.

A while back we were approached with an opportunity. ND Consulting, the local developer, was behind in what are called “make-readies”. A “make-ready” refers to doing whatever maintenance is necessary to a vacated apartment, etc. before a new tenant moves in. They wanted to know if we wanted the work. We were already partnering with them on several projects, so they were aware of the nature of our ministry and that we had the necessary skill sets.

We started by touring one of their developments that was a overhauled elementary school, now turned into apartments. Most of their developments are low-income, rent-controlled apartments.

Like our other businesses, we started by doing all the work ourselves. We had to break down bidding, maintenance, painting, and cleaning. Soon, though, we were able to integrate employees. We discovered that this was a perfect working environment for our ministry. It is relatively safe. No big machines or spinning blades. It has a broad skill set, with a fairly low bar initially. This means someone with few skills can come in and be trained on a wide variety of tasks and responsibilities. This can lead to several different career paths. Also, it is a contained environment, which means supervision is easy and efficient.

There are complications though. The work is dependent on the ebb and flow of vacancies. Emergency jobs pop up. Bidding can be time consuming, and difficult when it comes to work we've never done.

This business has led to other great opportunities. We started masonry and roofing soon afterwards. The same developer later asked us to provide lawn maintenance. Again, this has proven to be a good match for us. There is a good range of skill sets (pushing a mower, maintaining equipment, managing crews and supplies). It is local. It puts eyes all over the neighborhood. It keeps the place looking nice. We even took on a few vacant lots along the main thoroughfare to keep the place looking nice.

All of these skills cross over easily into the rest of our ministry. Employees end up trained to work in property rehab. Our own lawns get maintained. We have tools and skills to do community clean-ups, and to beautify the neighborhood.

Property maintenance and lawn care were two opportunities that came to us, and are creative ways to solve problems. They have given us new ways to create employment and pastor our community.

Monday, June 20, 2016

GreenTree Church Work Day

On June 11, volunteers from GreenTree Church helped us with some community clean-up. We have partnered with GreenTree on a number of projects, assisted greatly by our friends Bill Duggan and Nancy Prott. Bill and Nancy believe in what we're doing here and have encouraged others to work with us.

We have been turning our attention to community clean-ups because there is such huge need there. There is frequent illegal dumping occurring in our neighborhood. There are many neglected vacant properties and lots, and simply a lot of maintenance needed for things like signs, sidewalks, and streetlights. We connected with a few city departments to help out with the clean-up and bring attention to the other needs of the neighborhood. We see this as a vital part of Pastoring our Community. We don't have to do everything, or re-invent everything. City services exist for a reason, and we should utilize them whenever possible. This puts more eyes, attention, and resources on the area in general, and helps problems be brought to light. It also can clear up communication between residents and city departments and officials.

All this is a natural living out of the Gospel. The Gospel is about God's design, His heart, following wherever He leads. The “currency” of the Kingdom, if there could be such a thing, is love. And Jesus said the greatest form of love is sacrificial. What is it to a man if he does a good deed knowing he will be repaid, or to love a friend that has always been kind? Those are easy actions. The Gospel calls us out of an easy, self-centered life, and into a life of sacrificial love where the nations, and even our enemies, are blessed. It is always pointing to something bigger than ourselves.

But back to the work. One prevailing aspect of the day was the HEAT. We didn't break 100, but the heat and humidity started early and didn't let up. That didn't slow us down too much.

We had two vacant lots designated for brush and bulk trash. We began moving the debris to those locations. We did a lot of trimming along the alley. There were weeds, overgrown trees, and simply all kinds of mess clogging up the space and making it appear unkempt.

A fraction of our trash pile

We had weed trimmers, pruners, chainsaws, blowers, hatchets, shovels, and rakes. We even used a large tarp to help move the loose leaves and brush.

It took 11 people two and a half hours to clear one block of an alley. Just imagine if this were repeated across the city, every weekend. While it still may appear to be a “drop in the bucket”, it might be enough to initiate so much more.

Bill Duggan with the weed whip

The connection between trash and crime has been well documented (here's one study This alley is an excellent example. Besides physical evidence of crimes (needles, etc), there have been shots fired along the alley, and of course the dumping itself. Most poignantly, a car involved in a downtown murder/carjacking was dumped in this very alley. The trash continues to communicate to people that no one cares, no one is watching, none of this matters.

Unfortunately, about 4 days after the group left, someone else dumped construction debris in the alley (luckily, on top of a pile of brush that has already been reported to the city for removal). This was frustrating. A few months ago, we hosted a different volunteer group. After cleaning this very alley, one of the volunteers asked, “Isn't some of this work meaningless?” Now, she meant it in the best way possible. I don't think she was being critical or judgmental, but was trying to see how picking up trash fit in to what we do. So is it meaningless? In some ways, sure. There will always be more trash. There will continue to be selfish and inconsiderate people. Weeds will grow back. But even Jesus said we will always have the poor among us, and I certainly don't take that as a reason to cease ministering to them.

No. It is not meaningless. We were able to unite groups of believers into an act of selfless service...sacrificial love. This alone declares that the neighborhood is not a dumping ground or a wasteland. We cooperated with city services and got attention and resources to the area, and continued to open lines of communication with them. And we did clean up the place, which is meaningful not only to residents that live along it, but for the kids going to and from the elementary school located at the end of the alley.

After our work, we had lunch together

Sun Ministries will be hosting more workdays this year. To get involved, check our facebook to sign up and stay informed, or email Jason at

Scheduled Work Days
July 16
August 13

September 10

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Sewing Center - Social Entrepreneurship, pt. 3

Our sewing center is located in the upper level of the Opportunity Center at 1515 Newhouse. It was the first business we moved to our target neighborhood of Hyde Park. We started sewing products at the suggestion of Chris at Picasso's Coffee House, one of our first supporters. He was selling messenger bags made from recycled burlap coffee sacs when his source left the area. We adjusted the design and started sewing them in our house in the suburbs. We could only do this because Suzette, Executive Director Terry Goodwin's wife, was already an excellent seamstress.

Sewing away!

When we began making bags, we were looking for businesses to start. But what would work in this setting? What would work with our existing skill sets? We knew we had to provide employment and supply our own income. Through starting businesses, we become less dependent on outside funding. We can support ourselves with the work of our hands. We didn't set out to be involved in social entrepreneurship. We didn't even set out to make bags (or have a wood shop, for that matter). We were looking for solutions to problems, and walking through opened doors of opportunity. Along the way, we encountered questions and answers we had never thought of. How do you empower people to minister? How do you create space that allows people to overcome obstacles? How do you use the work of your hands to build the Kingdom? How do you move someone from being surrounded by chaos to becoming a great employee?

In the beginning, we were sourcing bags from the local roasters in St. Louis and purchasing material at fabric stores. Eventually, we were connected with Charity Sharity, which gathers craft materials and disperses them to local charities and non-profit organizations. So now, all our fabric and other materials are free. This greatly decreases the overhead for producing the bags.

Burlap coffee bean bags waiting to be transformed

Initially, we did all the work of making bags ourselves. We had never managed a business like this before. We had never made bags like this before. Once, when we received a large order, Suzette had to teach all of us to sew, and we did from the time we got up until we went to bed. This season of the business helped us all better understand the product and labor involved, and certainly showed us how to work together. Eventually, we became better at managing production, and were able to employ a few people in the space.

We started by selling our bags at craft shows and Earth Day events. This gave us great opportunity to talk with people about our mission. Later, we took the bags to CoffeeFest, a national tradeshow for the coffee industry. We now have retailers in several states and Canada. Everywhere a bag goes, it tells a bit of the story of Sun Ministries.

Finished messenger bags waiting to be tagged and shipped

The Sewing Center has also experimented with other products, including paper, jewelry, and book covers. While we have established our regular items, we are still looking to future possibilities.

As mentioned in our previous blog, the sewing center space used to be the home of our missionaries before we bought the Leadership Center. When we moved in, there was no climate control, kitchen, or shower. There was no privacy. In the winter it got very cold. In the summer, it got very hot. Living in this environment, with close quarters and no escape, forced us to deal with relationship issues. We had to learn to work together and communicate. The thing that helped us is that we were all united in vision to accomplish the work. We knew what God had called us to, and that our work was doing more than producing bags. We were laying foundation for opportunity and hope. The Sewing Center has since been painted, insulated, and organized. A finished bathroom and office have been added. Extra lighting, air conditioners, and ceiling fans have been installed. We enclosed the top of the staircase to keep out noise from the woodshop. It is now a much more pleasant place to work.

Sewing Center today.  Notice, the work stations are set up so workers can see each other and converse.

One aspect that makes the Sewing Center special is that it allows participation from home. We've sent fabric and sewing machines home with ladies to make products. This is helpful for single mothers or other people with circumstances that would prevent them from coming in to work every day.

Through the sewing center and other endeavors, God is showing us that He has a purpose for our creativity and skill. In the Bible, God sent His spirit upon His people to be able to perform many crafts and creative works in order to build the tabernacle. We see God continue to do this. He has given us creativity and skill to work with Him to create products. We can express our selves and what He does through different materials, whether they be burlap, fabric, or wood. Utilizing repurposed materials not only lowers our overhead and helps us care for the earth, but it is a fitting metaphor for the hope God is bringing here. He is providing a second chance. He is coming alongside people to make them into something new, wonderful, useful, and whole.

Read Social Entrepreneurship, part 1 - Sun Cafe

Read Social Entrepreneurship, part 2 - Wood Shop

Monday, May 16, 2016

Wood Shop - Social Entrepreneurship, pt 2

We will continue discussing social entrepreneurship by looking at our wood shop.

The building that contains our wood shop, located at 1515 Newhouse, has quite the story. Originally, it housed a printing company. Starting in the 60's, G. W. Helbling and Sons moved in. They produced screens for silk screeners. It was a family business. One of the elder Helblings was well-known for being able to produce the smallest font size in the area, because at that time, lettering was hand cut.

The ghost sign from the original tenant of the building is still visible on the back wall.

In early 2009, we began walking the Hyde Park neighborhood, praying and picking up trash. Occasionally, we would meet people. We knew God had called us here, but we were certainly strangers. At the time, we would regularly pray and fast, asking God to lead us in what He was building. We were sewing and doing wood working at one of our homes in the suburbs. We didn't know what we would do as winter approached. So in November, we told God our concerns. We can't pick up trash when snow is covering the ground. There's no public restroom to use. We know we don't need facilities for ministry, but we don't know what to do.

A few days later we were back in the neighborhood, eating at the only restaurant in Hyde Park. Terry, our executive director, was explaining to the waitress how we were having trouble trying to build deck chairs in his garage when we didn't even have a work bench. About a week later, she called Terry and told him someone was selling some workbenches. Not long after, Terry drove up to 1515 Newhouse and met Tim Helbling for the first time.

How the Opportunity Center looked when we got it.

After some pleasantries, and realizing the work benches were far too large for us to use (they were constructed inside the shop), Tim asked Terry what he was up to. Terry told him about what Sun Ministries planned to do, living out the call of Isaiah 61, rebuilding ancient ruins. Tim remarked that Terry was the most optimistic person he knew, and offered to sell Terry his building. Before Terry could answer, Tim laughed and said he could either let it rot, or give it to someone who could use it. “If I give it to you, will you use it?” Of course. “And how about all these wood working tools?” Definitely.

But why were we doing woodworking to begin with? We were inspired by a man pastoring his community in Kigali, Rwanda. He was using sewing and woodworking to provide jobs for women and orphans, moving them from homelessness and sex trafficking to a steady livelihood. We learned early on while walking the streets that there is not a lack of Jesus being represented or preached. “I can get Jesus from my grandma,” remarked one kid. “I need a job.”

While we had planned to have social enterprises (businesses), this remark, and Eugene's work, solidified the goal to create businesses that could employ people with multiple obstacles and minister to their physical needs, while we proclaim and demonstrate the Gospel. The Good News is not simply about salvation. It is the Good News of the Kingdom where the poor and orphans are cared for, where humanity functions more like a living organism, and God's glory is like a light in a dark place. This is not done by words alone, but by sacrificial acts of love and service.

We started with basic wood products, buying lumber from big box stores. Eventually, we were convinced by one missionary's father to check out some pallets, and this transformed our wood shop. We now had free (although labor intensive) wood.
pallet smashing 101

So now that we had a woodshop, a few product designs, and free lumber, we still didn't quite have a business, and certainly didn't have full understanding of how to utilize it to bring opportunity. We tried a work re-entry program, partnering with another non-profit organization. That was eye opening, to say the least. After that, we were convinced that we needed to establish our foundation. We needed to create a work space, design specific products, develop training, and learn the skills ourselves.

Since then, the woodshop has seen a number of people come through. It has proven to be a difficult place to employ people. It requires math skills, intuition, and extreme attention and safety due to the dangerous power tools. It has also laid the groundwork for our maintenance services, as it gave us the environment to learn how to use saws, drills, hammers, etc.
our commercial table tops made from recycled pallet wood

The woodshop established us firmly in the Hyde Park neighborhood. Now that we had a work place, and work to do, we were here much more often, usually with the doors wide open. Eventually, we moved in to the upper level while we continued to look for housing, and then rehabilitated the house we finally did find. We have made numerous items for charitable auctions, fixed widows' stairs, installed cafe bar fronts, and of course, built all our own tables and chairs for Sun Cafe. Our commercial furniture can be seen in several local coffee shops, as well as some further out, as we've gotten customers from places like Kansas and Wisconsin.
tables and chairs in a local coffee shop

The woodshop continues to evolve. Having started from ground zero concerning both skill and tools, we've come a long way. We are developing and stabilizing product lines, exploring marketing, and continuing to transform the space into a safe, efficient, work environment.

To see examples of our past work, visit one of the posts below:

Monday, May 9, 2016

Sun Cafe – Social Entrepreneurship, pt 1

 Our previous blog discussed our perspective on Social Entrepreneurship. We will continue this through examining each of our social enterprises, starting with Sun Cafe.

The vision of Sun Cafe has been with us since we first began the Isaiah 61 Initiative in early 2009. Our plan was to have a coffee and ice cream shop that could employ people and provide hospitality. As we pursued that goal, it became clear that the cafe was not the business with which to start. Instead, we focused on our wood shop and sewing center, and began the never-ending work of understanding what God had called us to.

1435 Salisbury, the location of Sun Cafe, before work began on the building
However, the vision was still with us, and we knocked ideas around in the midst of all our other projects. Eventually, we were approached by a developer who offered us an amazing location at Blair and Salisbury, two blocks off I-70, in the first floor of a three-story commercial live-over. The building had been vacant for decades and was in terrible condition. When we first entered the space, we could look down through a hole in the floor and see the dirt of the basement, and look up and see blue sky.

This started a lengthy and convoluted process of really developing the nature and goals of the cafe. Starting a restaurant is not easy, and it is one of the riskier businesses to start from scratch. None of us had managed a restaurant, although most of us had food service experience.

We discussed the menu, which began as a simple list of some of our favorite foods, exploded into an international selection, and eventually settled down into something similar to most diners, but with a few house specialties thrown in (such as the Louie, cornmeal pancakes, and the dirty mug). Some of our own family recipes were even included. Of course, we had a full coffee menu, including espresso drinks and pour-over coffee. Desserts included ice cream and baked goods.

The d├ęcor was intended to represent the history and future of the neighborhood. We wanted to mix industrial and Victorian elements, with a color scheme that brought warmth and hearkened to our love of coffee. We put in a stage so that we could bring musicians and other artistic acts into the neighborhood. We left wall space for displaying visual arts.
1435 Salisbury in its (first) heyday

As I mentioned, the building itself needed a lot of work, and the blueprints saw numerous revisions. The rehab of the building took over two years and gave us time to develop the idea of the cafe, source equipment, and mature our existing projects. We finally opened in February of 2014, initially by simply taking down the paper on the windows (we had a “grand opening” a couple weeks later). We were assisted by equipment donations, flooring donations, some favors from friends and partners, and a lot of hard work. We finished out the space, including painting the walls, installing the flooring, building our bar, bakery case, and chairs, and putting finishing touches on the place.
our grand opening

However, these are all simply brick-and-mortar issues. The real story of Sun Cafe is in its very purpose. Sun Cafe exists to create a hub for connecting, serving, casting vision and providing hospitality. As mentioned in previous blogs, our businesses support the ministry as well as provide employment environments. However, each business also takes part in the rebuilding of Isaiah 61. Not only are buildings being renewed, but economy is being built up, and hope restored. We may be biased, but Sun Cafe is a nice space. We wanted to stand against the physical decay and negative attitudes over the area by making a beautiful and welcoming environment. The cafe brings people, and money, from outside the area into our neighborhood. We've hosted celebrations and discussions. We often have music to enjoy.

Sun Cafe definitely made the work of Sun Ministries very public. It has served as a connecting point with neighborhood residents, government officials, non-profits, churches, artists, police, and families. It certainly put us face to face with many people, and opened up opportunity to cast vision.

art displayed at Sun Cafe
The cafe has many challenges. It was our first business to have set hours. It is in very close quarters with the general public. The kitchen is always a stressful place. It contains lots of big equipment requiring regular maintenance. And like I said, we lacked restaurant management experience. Add all that on top of running four other businesses and trying to take on ministry projects, and you have quite the work load. While we've had our bumps, we are hopeful that the cafe can be a positive environment for our employees and customers. We plan to utilize its public nature to promote more community organization and progress. We host regular ServSafe certification courses for our employees and the public.

Besides offering food, coffee, and ice cream, Sun Cafe also does catering. We host meetings and parties. And we're open to other creative partnerships for utilizing our space and services.

You can learn more about Sun Cafe by visiting our website, or checking out our facebook and twitter  feeds. You can also visit the Isaiah 61 Initiative site to read some different perspective on the purpose of the cafe.

Read Social Entrepreneurship, part 2 - Wood Shop

Read Social Entrepreneurship, part 3 - Sewing Center