desert oasis

Streams in the Desert: Sowing Seeds for Transformation

Sami is a man with a dream for a nation. It is a dream that took root in the dry and dusty ground of an Islamic country in the early 90s and that has grown up over nearly 20 years through both success and adversity. His vision is to raise up servant-leaders in the marketplace, a group of national business and community leaders that are following God’s ways and shaping a nation from the inside-out. The dream is for nothing less than transformation – of people and values, of communities, and ultimately of a nation. This is a nation that we will call “Gongori” – an impoverished state that is crippled by corrupt leadership.

This is not a dream for the short-term. When Sami and his team first started their business in 2007, it was within the context of a 30 year long strategy to disciple Gongori leaders in Godly principles and with years of preparation and planning behind them.

However, for all the long-term planning, tough lessons can bring about necessary adaptation! Lately, Sami has been thinking a lot about the Biblical account of Joseph and how he was able to bring influence from the ‘inside’ in a nation because he had an ‘Egyptian face’. The unique challenges of working in a country like Gongori have paid a heavy price and Sami is now embarking on revised strategy based on what he is calling the ‘Joseph Approach’.

Background

Sami started out in the early 90’s  as the Director of an international humanitarian organization in Gongori, before moving into a technology based  non-profit organization a decade later. It was early on in this foundation-laying phase that Sami and his team began developing their ideas about what it would really take to be a catalyst for long-term change in Gongori.

Gongori is a nation locked in poverty and where according to one long-time resident, ‘The ruling class are quite content to see the country stagnate in a state of un-development, rather than to see it develop positively, as long as they are getting richer.‘  “In Gongori”, Sami adds, “It is culturally acceptable to be a proud, selfish and self serving brand of leader, as long the needs of one’s tribe are addressed.”

Thus the long-term vision for starting a business has been, and continues to be, that a core group of Gongori business and community leaders be transformed through a relationship with God. In turn, as these Gongori business leaders model biblical values and servant-leadership, they would influence other community and business leaders, actively promoting God’s will and Kingdom in their nation.

Business Development

Having gained operational competency in the local context and having built up key relationships over many years, Sami and his team started to develop their business plan. The plan that emerged was to start a core business that would grow and spawn other related businesses, train others and bring influence in various ways.

In 2007, the team started ‘Crossroads’, a Café, Restaurant and Cultural Center that was to be the first of four planned stages to provide the platform upon which the vision might be accomplished. Later stages envisaged for the business cluster included developing IT Services, a Print Shop and a Training Center which would offer business consulting, career coaching, training in leadership and job placement work.  After 2 years of operations, the Crossroads Center had already developed various services, including: a café and restaurant, a small “Inn” with three suites, a venue for cultural activities, a conference room, an outdoor movie area for films with a moral message and a concert area on the roof.

At this stage, the business had begun to meet many of its early objectives. One of these was to provide a hub where Gongori business people and others relaxed ate, networked, formed relationships and conducted meetings and seminars. Sami reports, “Over 200 people a day came to use our business facilities – both Gongoris and foreigners – from the local bank teller to government ministers, ambassadors, community groups, NGO workers, business men and women, from the most wealthy to the lower scale businesspeople and of all races! On weekends and for special events we might get double that number.”

Crossroads staff began to influence others in the ‘marketplace’ of Gongori, discussing the pros and cons of Godly principles and practices on a daily basis.  “It was fascinating to hear the many debates around the reasons for being a socially responsible business. The conversations were provoked by our team’s example of honest and transparent service and business practice,” says Sami.

Due to such efforts towards business excellence, Crossroads become a valued partner, building good working relationships with influential leaders in the city.  Crossroads was perhaps the only example of a socially responsible business promoting Godly principles in that context. Sami shares, “If Crossroads was not the only example of a business in service for the benefit of others in Gongori, it was one of the very few.”

Early successes and good practices

From these years in business, the team were able to identify good practices that they saw as vital to the success of Crossroads.

For example, they saw that contextualized staff training was integral to setting the high standard of customer service that enabled Crossroads to become so popular and created the ‘home away from home’ environment valued by so many of their clients. An effective analogy for staff training was to have the staff imagine the clients as friends of their father visiting their home. Just as they would welcome their father’s friend and serve them and make them feel at home, so they might also serve Crossroads clients with respect and their father in mind.

The business team also cite the flexibility of the business plan to adapt to cultural preferences as a key to success. Early on they had to let go of some of their western ideas for the business and listen more to their clientele. This led Crossroads to evolve into a restaurant serving a full menu, from the starting idea of a cafe ‘à la Starbucks’ that served very little in the way of food. Sami shares “The vast majority of our customers were asking for greater variety on the menu and not only that, we were selling less than 10% of the coffee and sandwiches foreseen in the business plan! By listening to and serving the local customer as opposed to ourselves and foreign clients, we succeeded in making Crossroads “home” for so many.  Our culturally appropriate approach, combined with a popular menu meant that many people ate two meals a day at Crossroads, some even three times a day! We estimate that if we hadn’t been willing to adapt our plan, the business would have gone bankrupt within 6 months!”

Another innovation for the business was dealing with a negative precedent in the culture where it is normal for restaurant staff to steal from their employers. Restaurants in the capital city of Gongori are run almost exclusively by Eastern expatriates who treat employees very poorly. In return, these restaurant workers have developed ingenious methods of stealing from their restaurant owners. “Developing a system by which Crossroads staff were paid a percentage of the profits, with incentives based on performance, was a key to their believing that the business was for everyone, not just the owner or a chosen few.” Sami relates, “This was important because we needed to show in a practical sense that we were serious about building a business that had broader benefits and it was essential for us to be able to build long-term trusting relationships with our employees”.

Another good decision was to establish business credibility and relationships through the café, inn and cultural center before launching the other businesses. According to Sami, “The strongest team motivator was always Crossroad’s vision for a training center, but we all understood that we needed to establish business credibility first. In the meantime, the vision was clear and team members from the dishwasher to the accountant were excited about the eventual training center. To this end, everyone worked hard to see Crossroads through the first stages of development.”

Sustainability – Life and Death!

Through the success of the Crossroads Center, the business team quickly established a foothold and respect in the marketplace of Gongori. However, late in 2009 Crossroads had to be abruptly shut down due directly to the arrival of terrorist cells in the capital city of Gongori.

At that stage Crossroads was well on its way to becoming a profitable and commercially viable business. Given a backdrop of international recession, political instability and the building terrorist threat, the team regard the progress of the business to be providential, although their goals had not yet been fully accomplished. Sami shares, “At the time of the shut down, we estimate that Crossroads was within one year or less of launching initial training activities, which were constantly being requested by clientele.”

The importance of profitability and thus financial sustainability can never be overstated in business. For the Crossroads team, the question of sustainability became a real life and death question – not merely for the business in an economic sense, but in regard to their own personal safety. Sami is not joking when he says “Crossroads’s leadership would not be able to accomplish and follow through with a thirty year discipleship vision if we were dead”.

The threat to the key Crossroads team members was very real. Following numerous attacks and kidnappings of foreign personnel all over the country, the danger moved closer to home in mid-2009 when a friend and close associate of Sami was shot and killed. Sami was counseled by Gongori’s and expatriates alike to shut down Crossroads and leave the country. As the only American involved in a high-profile business in Gongori at that time, he became the primary ‘lightning rod’ for a terrorist attack.  Police were stationed at the Crossroads premises 24/7 for the 2 months immediately prior to it’s closure.

After exploring avenues for continuing the business with local leadership or selling the business intact, the team came to the regrettable conclusion that the only real way forward was to shut down the business. As Sami reflects, “Our best option, based upon the situation at the time, was to sell assets and learn to be even more patient with countries like Gongori”.

“Closing Crossroads’s doors and leaving the fruit of three years hard work was an ordeal for the whole team. It was like being forced to sell one’s home for all those involved – staff and clients alike. Crossroads had become an oasis and an act of God’s grace to many” shares Sami. “Islamic extremism has been a world-wide threat since 2001. But we could not foresee that Al Qaeda would make Gongori a major arena for terrorism. The once tolerant and secure country we knew from the 90s was a thing of the past. If we had known in 2007 what would happen in subsequent years, we would not have continued with the Crossroads business plan.”

The business team had prepared to some extent for a lack of infrastructure, corruption and a hostile regulatory environment. They faced all of these to a greater degree than even they had anticipated but the final straw was the lack of reasonable security. The team had reckoned on Gongori being physically safe, if not fiscally safe.

The Joseph Approach

Just over a year later Sami and his team are building from these painful circumstances, evaluating their experiences and actively preparing again for future engagement in Gongori. As Sami reflects, “The storm of terrorism came, but we believe that the ‘house’ – the vision for what the Lord wants to do – is still intact. We will seek to hear and understand His voice and plan to continue to move ahead”. Part of that moving ahead involves a complete shift in their approach, given the new threats and existing challenges in the business environment in Gongori.

Sami shares, “We are calling this the ‘Joseph Approach’ and it is a shift to influence Gongori businesses from within rather from without. As Joseph became an influence in all of Egypt with an ‘Egyptian face’, so might someone like me, an expatriate teammate, or even another Gongori believer become a ‘Joseph’ in the context of an already established Gongori business.”

While Crossroads did involve Gongori leaders, the business community still viewed Crossroads as essentially ‘foreign’. “Crossroads had a distinctly Western business face, but for the future it might be more effective to work from behind the scenes of a local business so that such a business might be changed from the inside-out.” says Sami.

Sami has identified many benefits to this change in approach. “When a local business culture walks through the process of applying principles of honesty, transparency and integrity, the nucleus of a new truth and habit is much more likely to be owned and understood by the locals in a business rather than being merely being observed from the outside as it was at Crossroads.  A seed is thus planted from within and can continue to grow, even if the ‘Joseph’ is forced to leave the country.”

Adjectives like ‘enabling’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘incarnational’ pepper Sami’s language when he is talking about the Joseph approach! ‘Practical’ and ‘pragmatic, would also fit with regard to business infrastructure and taxation issues. Sami says “We learned the hard way that all businesses in Gongori are intentionally forced into varying levels of corruption by Government systems and laws.  We did not fully understand the lack of legislation that ordinarily protects and encourages business development, especially foreign business development.” In contrast to locals, foreigners are also expected to pay exorbitant prices for basic utilities like electricity and water.

Sami says, “In our experience, there is a hostility to foreign businesses that often guides the actions of officials and others. This national conviction was pervasive and the force behind many problems created out of thin air so to speak; trouble with customs, false electricity bills, accusations by officials, and so on. When this general attitude is combined with a lack of legislation that should protect business interests, look out! This is when one should consider going with the Joseph approach.”

Essentially, in a situation like Gongori, keeping a lower profile as a ‘Joseph’ helps to mitigate the threat of a high profile ‘western business’ becoming a target for terrorists. Being lower profile also has other benefits for Sami, as he reflects, “With the pressure of being a shining foreign example out of the way, I think the focus could more easily be on the will of God in the moment of each working day.” Just as Joseph was faithful to listen to God and follow His directives, determining how to learn to better hear and obey the Holy Spirit is for Sami a key to being most effective.

Sami has thought long and hard about this, “I asked myself, how do our Muslim friends, colleagues and clients see us? What do we have to offer that will draw them to Jesus? We offer them the example our lives, but is that enough? Living a Godly principle-centered and sacrificial life is important, but I think must go alongside hearing and obeying the Holy Spirit in the moment. We learned from our Crossroads experience that Muslims need to see that Jesus is the essential ingredient of the lives we live and that as we are guided by God, He can work through us.”

The Future

The team’s long-term hope is that as Gongori business and community leaders are transformed through knowing God, they would in turn impact others and their society. Already, two key Gongori Christian leaders are self-employed as consultants, building from their experience with Crossroads and are working towards the creation of other businesses. Ongoing networking and support is being provided to a dozen other ex-Crossroads staff from afar. In addition to ongoing follow-up with existing relationships, plans to return to Gongori as a ‘Joseph’ in the marketplace are being prepared. Overall, the business experience has already enabled many seeds to be sown and has started the team on a new journey. Sami concludes, “Relationships developed between 2007 and 2010 have launched us on a journey that, by Gods grace, many other believers will follow. We pray that they will go on to influence their communities, moving towards God’s intention for them and the good news of Jesus as their Messiah.” Amen!

 Jo Plummer is the Editor of the Business as Mission website, with thanks to Sami. This story was first published on the BAM website in 2010 and is reposted as part of the ‘BAM is Global: Around the World in 40 Days’ series.

Adapted from from the Crossroads closing report written by Sami and his Crossroads business team in June 2010.

Photo Credit: Flickr CC