Friday, January 30, 2009

The Redemptive Drug Test

In most businesses, a positive test for drug use results in termination. I think it’s possible to create a safe work environment while also running a redemptive drug-testing program. Such a program seeks to balance personal safety while facilitating long-term life change. For a faith venture business that creates opportunity for individuals rebuilding lives from addiction or prison, this type of drug-testing policy is an absolute necessity and involves techniques to discern a person’s willingness to change.

One of the most helpful tools in this quest is regular random drug-tests. These are performed in an environment where it’s communicated in numerous ways and settings that it’s better to reach out for help if one is using drugs than to attempt to hide such use. In the face of an imminent drug tests, we then observe an employee’s willingness to admit to use across a spectrum of four possible approaches.

The person who is most likely to succeed at overcoming an addiction is the one who comes to us for help before the administration of a drug test. This employee seems to understand that they have a problem and wants to find a way out of the addiction. A close second on the spectrum is the person who admits to use on the way to the drug testing facility. This is followed by the individual who admits to use after the test but before the results are back. The final point on the spectrum is the employee who denies use after a positive test result occurs.

These four possible responses are ordered on a spectrum from most likely to succeed to most likely to fail. The employee who denies use after a positive result is the one who is most likely in denial. This array helps us to craft an appropriate redemptive response. When someone tests positive for drug use, one possible choice is to suspend the person from work for at least a week. We ask them to return in a week with a willingness to enroll in an addiction program and an agreement to regular drug tests. We communicate that future positive test results will result in termination. If they return in a week with the assignment completed we are on our way to seeing a person succeed at overcoming drug use.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Of Thrift Stores and Vacuum Cleaners

When you work in an old warehouse from the early 20th century, dust and grime become your constant companions. We wage a daily battle trying to keep our workspace clean often with very little success. One weapon in our arsenal is the trusty vacuum cleaner. Unfortunately, Belay seems to be a place where vacuum cleaners come to die. I was reminded of this fact this afternoon when my assistant let out a yelp after the vacuum she was using started spewing dust like an erupting volcano.

A few years ago, I remember purchasing a new vacuum cleaner from the local Target store. I returned to Bud’s Warehouse and spent the next hour putting it together. I then left for a meeting. About an hour later I returned. As I was walking through the parking lot, I noticed a customer carrying out my brand new vacuum cleaner.

“Where are you going with that?” I asked.
“I just bought it.”
“But it’s not for sale.”
“Yes, it was and I have a receipt for it right here.”

I kindly explained to her that the sale was a mistake. I had just bought the vacuum at Target.

Now, when good vacuums go missing, I wonder. It’s the perils of working in a home improvement thrift store. Vacuum cleaners must be hidden behind lock and key…until their engines fill up with dust and they give out one last gasp. And then it’s back to Target.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Following the Bread Crumb Trail

In my experience, leadership is more of an art than a science. This is especially true when you examine leadership in the context of the different constituencies of a nonprofit agency. The various stakeholders invested in a charitable mission--from the board of directors to the management staff, from volunteers to program participants—are emotionally invested in past decisions and future outcomes. Leadership will not discover its full potential when it doesn’t make room for the artful accommodation and careful cultivation of these various invested voices.

Over the last ten years, when my own leadership style has been too authoritative and not collaborative enough, I have not seen the level of positive results as opposed to when it has been more of a shared journey. This has become especially true as our organization has grown in size and matured from its start-up phase. I have come to see that process of achieving certain leadership aims is more a task of breaking the goal into little pieces and enabling the constituencies to collaboratively work through the ramifications of the decision.

Today I was reviewing a chapter on “Executive Leadership” in The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. The authors Robert Herman and Dick Heimovics understand this unique process of guiding stakeholders in leadership. They aptly call it the “laying of a bread crumb trail” where “over time, through various communications, a chief executive points the way to an important decision.” (The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership, 1994, Page 144) The decision is broken up into smaller pieces that naturally overcome emotional interests and lead to a collaborative discussion. In my experience, this is an important reality of nonprofit leadership. The reality of “the way we’ve always done it” is hard to overcome without this technique.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Place to Call Home

A person rebuilding a life after an addiction, homelessness, or prison has the double needs of employment and housing. These both have to be in place in order to increase the odds of successful outcomes. It goes without saying that housing without a job or a job without housing are not scenarios that are destined for success.

Over the years, Belay’s various faith venture businesses have partnered with transitional housing organizations such as Providence Network in order to serve the housing needs of our program participants. One of the benefits of such a partnership is that individuals receive 24 hours of services during a very difficult time of transition. Then, a natural step down from services occurs as people remain in our program and graduate from the transitional housing program into their own apartment. Individuals do not lose all of their program support at once as this slow progression allows them to return to full self-sufficiency in a more natural progression.

We have recently run into a new roadblock to finding housing situations for individuals coming out of prison. Because of some legislation implemented a few years back because of a violent crime Denver’s Capital Hill neighborhood, it is illegal for individuals with certain felony offenses to live in neighborhood halfway home facilities. Capital Hill is the area where many high quality transitional programs exist so this legislation takes away the best options from the individuals who need them the most.

I think the rules are also shortsighted. The aim may be to reduce the potential for future violent crimes in the Capital Hill neighborhood by keeping such individuals out. But the reality is that these individuals end up living on their own in a Capital Hill apartment forgoing the program services that lead to a decrease in future criminal activity. I believe that the Denver ordinance leads to potential unintended consequences from unsupported offenders now being forced to live by themselves in the community rather than in the proactive safety of a community transitional-housing program.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Learning to Listen....Again

We live in a culture that likes to be heard. And our society has forgotten how to listen. These two tendencies are very much at odds with each other. So we end up with a community where lots of people are talking and no one is really listening. Or even worse, we have a bunch of individuals talking about stuff that no one’s interested in.

I have found that in ministry settings this can be especially true. The great danger is that we are missing the connection points with the people we are trying to serve in our particular ministry.

In urban ministry, I think this is a rather common occurrence. The person trying to teach doesn’t connect with the participants because they have forgotten how to listen. This may be the result of a false paradigm where the leader sees the ones they are teaching as “broken” and in need of being “fixed” rather then as fellow sinners on a common path of redemption. We do our ministries well to actively seek out questions and to create an environment where people can explore their thoughts verbally in a community that offers safety and a desire to learn together.

So what does this mean for a faith venture like Bud’s Warehouse? It involves making a concerted effort to listen and involve others in the common journey in Jesus’ grace. Our Bible study times are less about a teacher instructing others and more about the community learning together. It’s about the leader asking questions and then listening, really listening. It’s about answering questions with questions. It’s about guiding the discussion toward the truth verses declaring the truth without involving everyone else in the journey.

I have found Young Life’s Serendipity New Testament for Groups to be a wise guide towards encouraging this type of discussion in an urban setting. This Bible breaks up the New Testament into sections and then provides opening questions to get the discussion started, questions to dig deeper into the text and then points for further reflection. Serendipity is a great starting point for learning the rhythms of engaging a group into a true community Bible study. I have found that very quickly issues of interest to the group rise to the top and provide great teaching moments. That is as long as I can keep my mouth shut and allow the Holy Spirit to speak through the group.

I remember it was a great moment in my life when a mentor told me that ministry is more about listening then speaking. As men, we want to fix things. That is the approach we most naturally take. It is far better to listen, to only speak when it is really necessary and to allow God and the Holy Spirit the chance to heal and redeem.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Mystery of the Incarnation

I learned of this quote by Andrew Sullivan in a recent wonderful sermon, "In the Beginning Part II - This Time its Personal" by Rob Bell. I don't know much about Mr. Sullivan's theology--I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't agree with it all-- but his writings beautifully capture the mystery of the incarnation and the love of Jesus.

I call myself a Christian because I believe that, in a way I cannot fully
understand, the force behind everything decided to prove itself benign by
becoming us, and being with us. And as soon as people grasped what had
happened, what was happening, the world changed forever...And the world as
it was--as it still is--was unable to tolerate this immense occasion; and so
Jesus was executed and the life more in touch with divinity than any other
life was ended abruptly, when it was still achingly young. The existence of
such a life was both so wondrous that it changed everything; and also so
terrifying it had to be
snuffed out.
From 'The Conservative Soul' by Andrew Sullivan as excerpted in "Being Christian Is About Love, Not Laws" on Beliefnet

Friday, January 16, 2009

Homeboy Industries

About two years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Father Greg Boyle, who is one of the most inspirational faith venture leaders I have ever met. There’s a good chance you’ve heard his story because he is a sought our expert on the issue of gang intervention strategies and makes many media appearances. I was even watching an international travel show on PBS this past year where Father Greg appeared as part of Globe Trekkers’ dining recommendations for Los Angeles.

Father Greg is the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, California. He gave the keynote talk to a Faith and Enterprise seminar that I organized at the 1997 Social Enterprise Alliance Gathering in Long Beach, California. Father Greg shared with us many wonderful stories of life-change that have come about through his faith venture businesses and community programs.

Homeboy traces its roots to the 1988 formation of the Jobs for a Future program after the Los Angeles riots when the community was seeking solutions to gang violence. The organization acquired a bakery located across the street from its first facility and started Homeboy Bakery. Fundamental to Father Greg’s philosophy is the belief that gang problems can be solved by relationships formed in the workplace by individuals looking to leave gangs. The organization’s mission is summed up by the idea of “Jobs not Jails.” It assists at-risk and formerly gang-involved youth to become positive and contributing members of society through job placement, training and education.

The Homeboy faith venture now operates five transitional employment businesses besides Homeboy Bakery. These include Homegirl Café & Catering, Homeboy Maintenance, Homeboy Merchandise, Homeboy Press and Homeboy Silkscreen. If you’re in Los Angeles, it’s well worth a visit to the Homegirl Café to get a taste of the Homeboy programs.

In addition to these successful operations, Father Greg is not above admitting that they’ve had a few mistakes over the years. One of my favorite parts of his Social Enterprise Alliance talk was when he laughingly shared that their Homeboy Plumbing business did not work out. “It turns out that homeowners are not excited about a business that bring ex-gang members into their home,” he noted with a grin.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Faith Based Paradigm Shift

(As with all posts on this blog, these thoughts reflect my opinion and not necessarily the views of my organization.)

The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives just released a final report on its performance as the Bush administration prepares to leave office next week. The report makes a convincing argument for the continuation of this program under the Obama administration. I think President Bush’s emphasis on breaking down barriers between government and the faith-based community has translated into real benefits for society.

Though Belay Enterprises has never directly sought out funding from government agencies, we indirectly have been beneficiaries of this shift in philosophy. Over the last 8 years, I have seen a definite growing willingness of government agencies at local and national levels to work with faith organizations. President Bush’s initiative gave permission for agencies to move dollars and to collaborate with the programs that were having the most positive impact on communities regardless of the religious nature of the organization.

Just this month, our Bud’s Warehouse project began providing contract job training services to individuals rebuilding lives from homelessness through Denver’s Road Home Project. This would have been unheard of a decade ago. The reason this relationship has developed is because there are no other organizations in Denver that provide on-the-job career-training services to homeless individuals coming out of prison with felony convictions. If the past prohibitions for collaboration between communities of faith and the government had been still in place, this innovative partnership would have never come about and this high-risk population would not be receiving such services.

It is my hope that the Obama administration will remain committed to this philosophy shift. The President Elect has indicated a willingness to move the program forward with a name change and some new rules prohibiting hiring discrimination at the management level. If he moves forward with the latter, it will have the same effect as ending the program by taking away what is unique to faith based organizations: a commitment to the particular faith. Religious organizations need to be managed by individuals that share the particular faith. I hope President Obama will change his mind with regards to this proposed rule change.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Baby Clothes as Hazardous Waste

Last week, we found out some surprising news from the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission. On August 14, 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) was signed into law. This federal legislation arose from the recent discovery of imported toys with high lead content. The law mandates that starting on February 10, 2009, it is a criminal offense to sell children’s products with lead content higher than 660 parts per million. This level drops to 300 parts per million after August 14, 2009. In effect, such children’s products are considered hazardous waste and can result in criminal and civil penalties. Also, as part of the act, it becomes immediately unlawful to sell products that have been recalled.

Last week, as the ramifications of this act sank in, a number of news stories (9News and Wall Street Journal.com) appeared in local and national news outlets. They warned about the possibility of this legislation having the unintended effect of closing numerous children product resellers because of the costly nature of complying with the requirements of the act. At the time, it appeared that resellers would have to test and certify products, including baby clothes, to prove that they are lead free.

I don’t think any resellers are opposed to the idea of lead safety standards for baby clothes and materials. The concern rises from the potential liability of selling such product and the onerous proposition of testing all uncertified products in a typical baby thrift store. This becomes ridiculous when you realize that testing an item for lead often involves destroying it, making the whole process impractical for a thrift store with only one of the items being tested.

Fortunately, the Consumer Product Safety Commission released new guidance on the act exempting resellers from having to test or certify that products are lead free. However, resellers are still prohibited from selling such products with lead levels above the limit. Thrift stores need to “avoid products that are likely to have lead content, unless they have testing or other information to indicate the products being sold have less than the new limit. Those resellers that do sell products in violation of the new limits could face civil and/or criminal penalties.”(CPSC News Release, January 8, 2009) In addition, it remains illegal to sell recalled items so resellers are required to manage their inventory accordingly.

This week, we are still trying to digest what this all means for our Baby Bud’s job-training program. An even bigger concern is the possibility of future business regulation legislation with unintended impacts on one of our other faith venture projects. Without an umbrella trade agency keeping track of such legislative developments, it is hard to stay up to date on developments and plan accordingly.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Points of No Return

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for
the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good
man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us
in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us… For if, when we were
God’s enemies, we were reconciled through the death of his Son, how much more,
having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

Romans 5:6-8,10,NIV


There are some choices in life that will permanently alter the path of one’s life. At Belay Enterprises, we exist because of society’s unwillingness to give individuals with felony convictions a second chance. Bud’s Warehouse and Baby Bud’s hire individuals for our job-training programs who are unable to get a job elsewhere because they are rebuilding a life from addiction, felony conviction, or homelessness.

We’ve always strived to make our programs a place about grace… living examples of God’s willingness to die for us individually while we are powerless…before we have our act completely cleaned up. God meets us in our place of brokenness, providing hope and healing through faith. But this is not the way of the world.

Every once in a while, we are jarringly reminded that our past bad choices sometimes have lasting consequences. We may find forgiveness and grace through Jesus but we still have to walk forward with the damage we caused by our actions.

In the job training and employment world, I like to believe that people can earn second chances if they prove themselves worthy of trust. But unfortunately, the system that seeks to prevent risk and liability often prevents this from happening. It means that an individual who is college educated in computer networking will be unable to find a job in the industry because of a past decision to use a computer in a crime. Or a person who happened to be an incidental accessory to a felony crime will now find it extremely difficult to find work as an accounts payable clerk. New accounting standards require audit warnings to management and reduce the likelihood of business insurance for a company hiring such a person.

These are hard realities to overcome even though people may have proven themselves worthy of a second chance. I believe that businesses should really worry about those without a past history of trouble verses those who made one poor decision but have done the hard work to regain trust.

But this is not the way of our world. The reality of consequences serves as a reminder to parents that we need to remind our children that there are decisions that can permanently alter our future. And it’s a reason our world needs faith venture organizations that help individuals navigate difficult career environments that result from past bad decisions.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Showing Up

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave,
where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor
wisdom.

Ecclesiastes 9:10, NIV

The key to success at work is showing up. And at the various businesses of Belay Enterprises, we teach individuals rebuilding lives from addiction or felony conviction that showing up is more than just occupying space at work. It’s deciding to be fully present at work and applying your best effort towards your tasks. Rising stars in different jobs are those people who know how to show up on a daily basis even when they don’t feel like it. And the reality is that we will all not feel like it at times. On those days when I don’t feel like giving my best, I find it helpful to find some space to thank God for the ways he has blessed me and then ask for some direction on the most important tasks that I should focus on that day. A time of refocusing and recommitting helps me to show up.

Ecclesiastes 9:10 reminds us to work hard at our jobs because some day in the future there will be no more working because of death. We are all created in God’s image. As image bearers, humans are imprinted with the ability to create and work. It’s part of our nature. We are fully human when we find opportunities to create and work…but we only have a limited time frame. Death temporarily brings an end to our creative selves until God recreates the world. Those with faith in Jesus will join him forever in the new world…and I believe that there will be a creative aspect to our future existence in partnership with God…only now we will create without the sin and suffering which corrodes our present world.

So as we enter a new year, I encourage all of us to strive to show up…to really show up as we work in partnership with God to create a better world in our individual jobs.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Back in the Saddle

I hope you had a relaxing and fun holiday season. Now, bring on the New Year! I like New Year's day because it feels like grace...a time to start-over. I am trusting that God will provide new faith venture opportunities for individuals and communities rebuilding lives in 2009.

I have been taking some time off from regular blogging in December but I'm excited to restart the conversation about faith ventures in the coming days. I look forward to learning more together.

Blessings-

James Reiner

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