Hope and Freedom for Women in Dire Poverty
An experienced businesswoman combines business with missions
I was nervous.
I sat in a board meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, on March 2018, feeling uneasy as I awaited my turn to speak. I had been invited to present about the missional business God had led me to start.
This wasn’t my first presentation. I had attended many high-level meetings in my 20-plus years of architectural design career, but I found myself alongside a very different group of people that day. No longer was I sitting around a table of seasoned architects, operations managers and business executives; next to me were seasoned missionaries with degrees in missiology and theology.
I swallowed my feelings of intimidation and began to tell my story, which, like all of ours, is God’s story.
It all started with a missions trip
Three years prior, I went on a missions trip with the Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois, of which I am a member. I'd been on several short-term missions trips and had wondered for years how I could be used in ministry full time. Little did I realize, this mission trip would be the difference-maker for me.
On this trip, my team facilitated a conference for about 200 female missionaries who were serving among the 5 million M*slims in Southeast Asia. At the conference, local women were selling colorful, artfully-crafted wallets and handbags. Their high-quality products caught my eye, but I also saw the extreme poverty in which these women lived.
I learned the women did not have the skills or opportunity to sell the products for a fair wage in their country. Some wallets were selling for the equivalent of $2 in US currency. This was not enough for the women to make a living. Most were living on less than US$1.25/day, and my heart broke for them.
Economic and spiritual poverty were both areas where I wanted to be a part of the solution. I had business skills, and I knew I could share the truth about Jesus. This is where I understood that God could use my business background. I could help these women learn business skills and make connections for them to sell their products at prices and in volumes that would support their families. I could build trusting relationships, which would allow me to share the gospel and give women the opportunity to step into life-giving faith and trust in Isa Al Masih, Jesus the Messiah.
This was how God took me from an interior project manager, church lay leader and sender of missionaries to a full-time, mid-career missionary.
What began as a whisper from God on that first short-term trip grew into a missional marketing business named Handwoven Products*.
Like Tabitha Centers, who partner with EFCA GlobalFingerprints—a part of ReachGlobal ministries—that teach women professional skills along with teaching them God’s Word, the missionaries with Handwoven Products* teach women how to perfect their craft so they can earn a fair wage income from the sale of their products.
Teaching them business skills and helping them make business connections also gives the missionaries entry into otherwise closed communities. Plus, it gives them an opportunity to establish biblical values education and Bible storytelling in the least-reached areas of the country.
Missional business model
Anita is a M*slim woman who became a follower of Jesus (whom they call Isa Al Masih) through this missional business ministry. Anita is a skilled artisan who makes wallets and handbags out of old plastic wrappers. She had come to the Bible Storying Sessions that Handwoven Products* hosted at her local community center.
Last year, after watching the Jesus Film in her native language, she and I talked. Anita asked, “How could Jesus have died on a cross?” She explained to me that she had been told by her Imam that Jesus did not die. But her Imam also had told her that prophets don’t lie. So, when she recalled Jesus saying He had to die to pay for our sins in one of the Bible Storying sessions, the Holy Spirit removed the blindness from her eyes and she began to see what was recorded in the Holy Book, the Injeel, about Jesus was true. Right there in Starbucks, as we talked, I witnessed as Anita put her faith and trust in Isa Al Masih, Jesus the Messiah.
From full-time professional to full-time missionary
Now that I’ve transitioned from the business world to full-time mission work, I’m realizing that the possibilities to do God’s work are nearly endless…and the needs are great. Administrative, accounting, customer service, team leadership, finance, human resources, entrepreneurial skills—these can all be used by God. It’s only a matter of asking how and where.
As I think back on my transition from business to missions, Isaiah 6:8 comes to mind:
“And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am! Send me.’”
I am humbled when I think back to praying these words as I took a step of faith to serve with EFCA Orchard Church on that short-term trip to Southeast Asia in the fall of 2014.
I prayed those words again four months after that trip, when I responded to God’s leading to go back to see the M*slim communities where the missionaries were serving. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back I know that in a still small voice, God answered my prayers and sent me to these specific, least-reached people in Southeast Asia for this season of ministry.
What is still mind-boggling to me, however, is how God fit my specific gift mix, heart for missions and missionary care into a specific ministry. He took my simple prayer and steps of obedience, my five loaves and two fish, and multiplied them to create an international handicraft marketing business that keeps M*slim women and families out of risk, gives them the opportunity to hear the gospel for the first time, and also helps fund missionaries who are at risk of leaving the field for lack of funding.
Our current product focus in Handwoven Products* are products made out of recycled packaging and dried water hyacinth materials. We minister to about 30 women and three communities through this business initiative, with sales exceeding US$50,000 since our 2015 inception.
I serve overseas* about one-third of the year, where I identify sustainable packaging sources, advise on product color and design, and create training materials. Most importantly, my ministry partners and I pray with the women in the name of Isa Al Masih (Jesus Christ) and share His love with them.
My story is a testimony to the powerful role the local church plays in mobilizing its people for local and global missions. Like we see in the early church in Acts, my local EFCA church provided me ways to use my heart to care for missionaries and be a part of missions both locally and globally. My church provided opportunities for me to serve and expand ministry to the least-reached people through short-term missions trip opportunities with partner organizations like ReachGlobal.
My story is one that speaks to how effective the church and the body of Christ can be at mobilizing someone into more full-time service for the Kingdom.
As I look back on my journey, I see God’s perfect timing through all the years I spent in my corporate office, honing my skills, and wondering how my skills could be used in a full-time missions capacity.
A changed perspective
As I closed my presentation to the board that day in Bangkok, to my surprise, the missionaries around the table had a positive response to my story. They expressed that my story challenged them to rethink their traditional missional models. They saw how my business background gave me access to communities that had been closed to Christians in the past.
It struck me how, though I lacked a degree in missiology, God was using my project management and business skills, which I learned in my career as an interior project manager, to have a seat at the missions table for such a time as this. I left that trip to Bangkok humbled and inspired to continue to move forward in cross-cultural missions.
Even though I didn’t attach business skills to missions at first, I am seeing more than ever how using business skills and teaching them to others has a Kingdom purpose; it is a natural ministry approach as well as a strategic one. Medical outreach and education are well-known methods to reach people in need, but business also has a place alongside them.
It’s interesting too that the Bible is full of businesspeople. Paul was a tentmaker as were Aquilla and Priscilla. Lydia was a businesswoman. They all used their skills to support themselves, to help God’s servants in ministry and to use every opportunity to meet with others to talk about Jesus Christ.
What is your story?
Maria is living out the message EFCA President Kevin Kompelien gives in his recent episode of Partners with the President, “the key to extending gospel ministries is creating unique and intentional ministries that provide pathways to church multiplication and discipling people. By extending gospel ministries, we’re opening doors to multiply disciplemakers, and to strengthen, revitalize and plant churches across our movement and around the world.”
Whether you’re an entry-level professional, mid-way into your career, thinking of a career change or retiring, you can make a difference by giving, praying or going—short-term or long-term. As a pastor or leader, planting the idea, sharing people’s stories or even suggesting ideas can lead to helping people live the abundant life from the boardroom to the markets around the world.
*Names of people, businesses, cities and countries have been omitted and/or changed to provide security.