Neighbors helping neighbors in Ironton
In the heart of Appalachia, jobs – or the lack of them – is a huge issue. Once the big manufacturers left the area, an economy built on shoes, and steel, mining and refined iron ore became nothing more than a memory. Sons no longer follow their fathers into the plants or factories, and welfare has become a way of life as industry and manufacturing jobs failed to reappear.
Churches in our part of the diocese often are asked to close the gap between what is available and what is needed. Handouts for food, gas, rent and utilities are an everyday occurrence in a small parish, regardless of denomination.
And yet the spark of entrepreneurship abides. The challenge for our congregation – how can we fan that flame and transform a community culture from a handout to a hand up?
It started with a young man who wanted to offer martial arts training for Ironton’s children who couldn’t afford a membership to the YMCA. The instructor, who was teaching at a Y, saw an opportunity to grow his own small business. With the help of his wife and a leap of faith on the part of our parish, we invited him and his students to use our parish hall twice a week. That was five years ago, and today the fledgling martial arts class enrolls enough students to supplement the instructor’s income, which helps send his wife to nursing school. All while making healthy, physical activity available at a low cost for Ironton’s children. An idea, a space – and a new small business was born.
It didn’t stop there. Along came a woman who loves to bake. She made cakes and cupcakes for friends and family members. Out of work as a bookkeeper, she thought she could supplement her income by expanding her baking business. Her home kitchen was too small, so she began to cook in the parish hall. An idea, a space, and a faith community that said, “sure, make yourself at home” – and today this woman has a thriving business and uses social media and farmer’s markets to expand her customer base.
Two others also have used our parish hall as space for their micro-businesses. On most days, the parish hall is a beehive of activity, with cell phones ringing, sweet smells pouring out of the kitchen and some occasional window rattling as boys and girls practice their high kicks.
The church’s mission is to share the transforming love of God. We had no idea that in several cases that would look like an invitation to share our underutilized facility with people who had ideas, but nowhere to make them happen.
I wonder sometimes, what if every parish nurtured just two micro-businesses every year. As a diocese, we could incubate over 100 new jobs every 12 months.
Is it inconvenient to invite a micro-entrepreneur into your space? Sometimes. Does it mean the building experiences wear and tear? Yes. But does the invitation hold the possibility for new life? Absolutely, which seems like one of God’s promises to make all things, even the tired and run down things, new.
~ The Rev. Sallie Schisler
What does micro-enterprise mean?
Many of us know of an entrepreneur trying to launch a business out of their home or garage, or someone whose hobby is turning into a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream. If you take a look into the neighborhoods in which our churches are located, there is likely an entrepreneur or two on the cusp of making their business successful, if only they had (fill in the blank.) And it’s highly likely that, whatever that need is, it can be found at that church down the street.
Often the needs of a small business owner have little to do with funding. Micro-enterprises benefit from connection within their community by gaining access to something that has been keeping them from growth and success. So what assets do our churches possess that could fill those needs?
The types of partnerships and resources available in a micro-enterprise community partnership have real potential to bring new energy to congregations. And it doesn’t necessarily mean a big investment on the part of the church. Christ Church, Ironton, has become a micro-enterprise incubator just by making underutilized space available to small businesses that need it.
You may be wondering – what does the church get out it?
Referrals work both ways – churches can benefit from the business as well.
•Possible income generation through rent, services
•Differentiates you from all the other churches in town
Every church does outreach, but a church that helps small businesses get off the ground – that could really put your congregation on the community’s radar.
Through extensive work by the Rev. Sallie Schisler and the Rev. Ron Dower, the diocese has been studying the possibilities of micro-enterprise partnerships for congregations and what role the Episcopal Church can play in supporting micro entrepreneurs, especially in Appalachian Ohio. Is your church already a micro-enterprise incubator? Or would you like to know more about how to get started? Contact the Rev. Jason Leo, Missioner for Congregational Vitality, at jleo@diosohio. org. Jason wants to hear what partnerships are already out there and can’t wait to help you get started with forming a partnership with a micro-enterprise in your area.
The Rev. Sallie Schisler serves as Priest in charge at Christ Church, Ironton. The Rev. Jason Leo and editor Julie Murray also contributed to this article.