Urban Ministry Leaders Support Grassroots Entrepreneurs

If we hope to reduce poverty and increase opportunity for those on the margins, helping people develop their own businesses must become an integral part of the biblical command to love our neighbors.

In a south Chattanooga community with historically over 20% unemployment, Robin Davis saw an opportunity to serve others through business. With 20 years of experience in the medical industry, Davis was aware of the challenges many face in getting to and from health clinics. Today her business, Loving Hands Helping Hearts Transportation, uses a small office and three vehicles to help a clientele that includes many seniors and people with disabilities.

Davis’s dream became a reality with the help of LAUNCH, a Chattanooga-based organization that provides business training and a network of support for emerging entrepreneurs. Since 2011, LAUNCH has trained 200 people like Davis and helped more than 100 new businesses start and grow.

LAUNCH is representative of a growing niche of Christian leaders who recognize that effective urban ministry must include the support of grassroots entrepreneurs. People experiencing underemployment and unemployment often turn to entrepreneurship, and 92% of all businesses in America have five employees or fewer. Meeting the felt needs of our neighbors — a prime tenet of urban ministry — means supporting entrepreneurial dreams.

Hal Bowling saw the need in 2010 during the recession. A former missions pastor and business leader who sold a successful business, Bowling saw many struggling to reinvent their lives after layoffs or long-term unemployment. “Entrepreneurship is the way of the future, the way out of unemployment and poverty and a way to wealth building and job creation,” Bowling says. “Our focus at LAUNCH is on the nontraditional entrepreneur — women, teens, minorities, residents of low-income communities — because we believe entrepreneurship isn’t for an elite few, but anyone with a dream.”

In Chicago, a similar vision gripped a historic urban ministry with a 100-year history of urban ministry. In 1905, Moody Bible Church started a rescue mission, Moody Mission, which later became Sunshine Gospel Ministries. Sunshine operated for 30 years within the Cabrini-Green housing project. When Cabrini-Green was redeveloped, Sunshine moved in 2001 to Chicago’s Woodlawn community, where they embraced employment-focused training alongside Christian discipleship programs.

But in terms of creating economic opportunity, something different was needed. “The training we provided was valuable,” says Joel Hamernick, executive director of Sunshine, “but after five years, it became evident that what was needed was a more practical approach to job creation and community restoration.”

Enter Sunshine’s big vision to create 200 businesses along 61st Street in the Woodlawn community. Starting in 2012, Sunshine Enterprises has provided a Community Business Academy and ongoing support for entrepreneurs who are community residents. To date, they have provided business training for 170 people and helped more than 80 businesses launch and grow.

In addition to supporting local entrepreneurs, Sunshine opened Greenline Coffee as a for-profit LLC in 2014. Located across from Sunshine’s main building, Greenline Coffee is dedicated to becoming one of Chicago’s best coffee shops while employing young people and adults from their community. Greenline Coffee recently opened a second location within the nearby University of Chicago to capture a percentage of the university’s catering market.

Across the country, Christian-led efforts similar to LAUNCH and Sunshine are starting and expanding.

Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Partners Worldwide has a seven-state network that last year created and sustained more than 440 jobs and supported 250 micro-businesses (i.e., businesses with five employees or less). Through its PWE Fund, Partners Worldwide also made its first U.S.-based investment into Greenline Coffee’s startup and expansion into catering.

In New Orleans’s Eight Ward, St. Roch CDC helped Koreole, a restaurant with a Creole-Korean fusion menu, get access to capital and open in 2014. St. Roch CDC’s leaders recently provided business training for 18 individuals — a few of whom were previously connected to the ministry — and are in the midst of helping each entrepreneur to get on his or her feet.

In south Texas, the Center for Peace is a social enterprise that works with women rebuilding their lives from addiction or prison. Two businesses — Stella’s Sassy Salsa and Luna Juice Bar — have been launched by women at Center for Peace with investment from local Christian business leaders.

Returning citizens — men and women exiting prison and re-entering society — are among those receiving entrepreneurship-focused support. New York City-based Defy Ventures has served 350 “entrepreneurs in training” across 11 states with a 3% recidivism rate. Houston-based Prison Entrepreneurship Program has graduated more than 1,110 inmates from their in-prison business class, with 165 businesses launched by former inmates.

“There are many examples of Christian organizations who start and operate a business to employ residents. Not many provide support for those same residents to create and own their own businesses,” says Chris Troy of New York City-based Praxis Connections. “If we really hope to reduce poverty and increase opportunity for those on the margins, helping people develop their own businesses must become an integral part of the biblical command to love our neighbor.”

This article was published originally in 2016 at the Praxis Connections Review.