International (MNN) — Greeting cards, coffee, pillows, napkin rings, bow ties, necklaces, stuffed dolls, Christmas ornaments, scarves. The list of what’s available at the missions-oriented online store just goes on and on. “We’ve done things like jewelry, stuffed animals. Candles are something new that we’re trying to bring online,” says Mark Latham, who took PIONEERS USA‘s business-as-missions project in 2012.
The project sells products made by people in countries like India or Jordan who are struggling to escape poverty. At the same time, teams work to teach employees about the gospel and plant local churches.
Stitching Together an Idea
The non-profit project started over 10 years ago when a group of field workers started a small quilting business to help women with no other source of income. Thanks to tourists and other enthusiastic buyers, “The business grew from a couple of people working out of a house to 20, 30, then a couple hundred people employed doing different components of quilting and little sewing projects.”
The project was only planned to be temporary. “But when the field workers came back to the States, they felt the need to continue that business.”
A few more years of planning, and “in 2005, the business began in the U.S. really as a market channel for that type of product team.”
The workers traveled to different conferences, spreading the word about their business, as well as the gospel angle to the project. More product teams were added, and the project grew.
The budding project struggled, however. None of the field team members had history in business, and they were working in countries where “visas are difficult to get [and] connections into people groups are difficult to get.”
Latham describes the countries they reach out to even now, saying they’re working “in very exclusionary and marginalized areas; isolated areas.”
Enter: the Lathams
Meanwhile, the Latham family discovered that they wouldn’t be able to participate in long-term missions like they had planned. After years of preparation, their stay in India only lasted 10 months before they discovered that their 5-year-old daughter couldn’t handle the local climate. Returning home, they searched for a new opportunity to further God’s kingdom.
PIONEERS approached the couple with a job offer. They wanted Mark and his wife to take over the business-as-missions project. “I’ve had 15 years of business work and sales and project management background, and my wife is an interior decorator,” remarked Latham. This combination of statistics and creativity made them the perfect addition to the team in 2012.
Today, the project is growing steadily. Although the ministry had only 8 committed partners in 2012, Latham says they “probably have 15 to16 businesses in 13 different countries right now.”
Product teams are groups of missionaries sent by the company as well as the locals they employ. Each team has a different approach to their job. “Because of the different countries and the oversight that goes on from a governmental standpoint, every team kinda works a little bit differently.”
The project is spreading not only to new product types, but to new countries as well. “Over the last 3 years, we’ve been able to go to Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Jordan.”
Each project is completely unique. “We’ve got some Middle Eastern work where it’s olive wood that being converted into necklaces and bracelets and household items like dishes or bowls.”
Some of the groups reached by the project are looked down upon in their cultures. “We work with some HIV-positive widows in SE Asia, and they’re making things like scarves and stuffed animals out of recycled silk saris.”
One of the newest additions to the store is coffee. The unique challenge of selling produce instead of wooden or fabric items is a great way for the project to extend its ministry arm. “It allows rural work to go on which otherwise would be very difficult to actually have sustainable work or a presence in some of those rural areas.”
What’s the Point?
PIONEERS USA is a non-profit organization. “Ultimately, no one on our team in the U.S. or our workers in the field profits off of what we sell. The funds go into the business operations and employing the local people and paying for the products, the shipping, and the way we market it in the U.S.”
So if not money, what IS the goal? “Our pillars are that we want to provide access to a closed country, access to a closed people group, or the business has to be a direct vehicle for church planting.”
One of the big targets is women, since they’re so degraded in many of the cultures in which PIONEERS USA is trying to make a difference. In “most of our areas, we’re working with marginalized women, and they can be of several different backgrounds. But the countries that we’re in, the women typically have very little rights, [and] most of them have very little education.”
Because of the lack of education, Latitudes teaches reading and writing along with the skill necessary to create the products. “Regardless of what happens with the work, the physical business, they are a better asset to their community as time goes by.”
Above all, the team spreads the gospel and encourages church planting. “[Christ] wasn’t just challenging people with their devotion and their lives, you know, the sin they were dealing with or were blind to. He met people’s needs. Several times you read that He had compassion. He had compassion on the crowd, He had compassion on the people. So, it seemed like half the time that His works were recorded, He was meeting physical needs. He was feeding people, He was healing people. He didn’t leave them in their distress.”
Latham finishes by summing up his approach to the business-as-missions project.
“If we’re to be like Christ, we have to meet the needs of those that we’re working with, those that we’re engaged with in relationship.”