The Patheos Faith and Work Channel recently contacted leaders of some prominent community development and entrepreneurial organizations to talk about successes and difficulties in their attempts to transform communities through the growth of new businesses and attention to the dignity of work. Over the last few days, just in time for Thanksgiving, MISSION:WORK has been featuring their stories. Here is the final story.
What is the basic mission of Sunshine Gospel Ministries and how did it come about?
It’s a 109-year old faith-based ministry, always in Chicago and only Chicago. It’s always been about ministry of the gospel in the city and among the poor, but there have been evolutions within that basic idea. For the past 50 years it has been primary a youth outreach ministry, with spiritual and academic goals for at-risk kids.
We had been in Cabrini Green, but when the city tore down the public housing there, we relocated into a neighborhood on the South Side called Woodlawn and started the whole thing over. We maintained our focus on youth (200 youth in the neighborhood year round), added mission trips (400-500 outside youth during spring break and summer), and are also now a business incubator. We started a coffeeshop with an impact investment strategy, not philanthropic dollars. Now it’s a separate entity entirely from Sunshine; as a tenant it rents space from us and employs 12 people from the community.
We have two strategies for incubating a business. One, which we did with the coffeeshop, is when we think we can actually start the business—raising capital, putting a business plan together, getting investors—but one a year of those would be a lot. So ns really our core strategy, is to identify existing low-income entrepreneur and businesses, and come alongside those and help them. We have businesses in the service sector: child care, hair care, party planning, mural painting, and window washing/cleaning. We have some that are product based: one that produces shirts and T-shirts, one custom shoes; and one that is food-based: baking cookies and selling them.
How have work opportunities and other projects sponsored/funded/incubated by SGM actually transformed communities?
We’ve had 21 jobs created in the past year, 12 through the coffeeshop and the rest through other entrepreneurs. Certainly our most visible aspect is Greenline Coffee. It’s transformed a corner from being a vacant abandoned building with difficulties to being a community gathering spot and a really beautiful place. We even now have live music.
Calvin Brown’s window washing company is a great success. He’s gotten some small business loans through KIVA and has 12 part-time employees working for him as he’s trying to expand the business. Jittaun Priest, a mural painter, did the mural at Greenline. SGM has now connected her with the University of Chicago, other markets for her art, and a mentor.
Have there been any failures in the process, and what instructive lessons did you take from them?
Articulating a vision for work in the Christian community and being able to raise support and awareness is in some ways the hardest part. Identifying people, establishing a level of trust, getting down to the nitty gritty of helping them grow their business—to do that we need relationships with mature Christians. Everyone in theory wants to move from a give-a-man-a-fish strategy to a teach-a-man-to-fish strategy, but we constantly need to articulate that this really is about the kingdom. The everyday work of people’s hands is how God extends common grace in the world. People think there is a disconnect. They say “You were a gospel ministry and now you’re focusing on work?” Evangelicals need to have a conversation about what it means to be made in the image of God and designed for work.
We see this as a very, very long-term strategy. We’re going slow, but over time will work with 100s and 100s of small businesses. We want to build relationships with churches, we want established Christian marketplace professionals to mentor and coach the people they work with, and we want the larger conversation about Christian ministry among the poor to focus on enterprise and work, and to be something that people can get involved in on a practical level.
Learn more about SGM here.
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