Holy Profits?

A Chicago Christian commune funds its charity work with a successful roofing supply company and other for-profit businesses

A Journalism Initiative of the Carnegie and Knight Foundations/August 22, 2007

Tim Bock may be the lowest-paid business manager in America. His roofing supply company grossed $18 million last year, yet Bock is living below the poverty line.

Bock is a member of Jesus People USA, a former traveling group that settled on Chicago's North Side in the early 1970s. The group, affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, has 268 adults and 94 children who live together in an Uptown apartment complex called Friendly Towers, which the group owns.

"It's basically an old hotel," Bock says. "My wife and I live in one room and then our four kids live just down the hall a little bit, so it's just like a big old family living together in this 10-story building." The building has a common dining room, a playground, laundry and other shared facilities.

JPUSA - pronounced "Juh-POO-zuh," - also runs several charities, including a homeless shelter and an after-school program for inner-city kids. Several floors of Friendly Towers serve as a home for senior citizens. But rather than relying on donations, JPUSA members fund these projects –- and pay their daily living expenses -– through business.

Lakefront Roofing and Siding Supply is the most profitable of the Jesus People endeavors, which also include a T-shirt printing company, a music label and a storage facility.

"Knowing that I'm just giving away all the money made for some cause that's far greater - it's eternal - that's what makes me tick every day," Bock says.

Everyone at JPUSA works, whether it's as a cook, a dishwasher, a teacher in the school, a volunteer at the homeless shelter, or an employee for one of the businesses. But members don't receive a salary; instead all money is pooled together and necessities like food and soap are bought in bulk for the entire community.

"We're all united by a common faith," says JPUSA member Scott Ingerson, who has been with the group for 17 years. "We're also united by a common bank account."

They're not the only such organization that does this; there are entire networks of other Christian communities around the country who share resources in the same way. They have a special tax status as a 501-D non-profit corporation, and though members don't get paid directly, they do pay taxes on their share of the organization's profits.

Ingerson says that for JPUSA, the taxable income works out to be around $6,800 per adult member. Because this puts them below the poverty line, those with children are eligible for Medicaid, while those without kids turn to free health clinics when necessary. The group also saves money by relying on the skills of its members - Lakefront's website was designed by members and when the Friendly Towers kitchen was remodeled a couple of years ago, they took advantage of the carpenters, engineers and other skilled construction workers in residence.

What distinguishes JPUSA from other intentional communities of people who live together and share resources, Ingerson says, is its large size and its urban setting.

The hardest part may simply be getting along with each other. "That's really our first and most important job," Ingerson says.

"There's an enormous amount of irritations living together," says Bock. "You have to forgive constantly. The kids who hit your kid and you're living next door to them and you've got to make peace with them... it's basically like living in a college dorm," he adds with a laugh.


But life in a commune is a lot more challenging than life in a college dorm. A lot of former JPUSA members have reported bad experiences – and some even launched campaigns to convince current members to leave.

"These types of communities tend to be very high demand, high intensity," says Paul Martin, whose Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Albany, Ohio councils individuals coming out of abusive religious groups, organizations and cults. "And for many inside of those communities, they would find the experiences very controlling and very incompatible with their own sense of individual self-individuation."

Jeanne Howe, who is part of a small Christian community called Reba Place in the North Chicago suburb of Evanston, says independent religious communities always get attacked as "cults" or "heretics" at one point or another; it's just something you deal with "when you choose to live in alternative way."

But JPUSA has seemingly drawn more controversy than most. Sociology professor Ron Enroth included the group in his 1994 book "Recovering from Churches That Abuse," and a 2001 Chicago Tribune series quoted numerous former members who were bitter about their experiences and who said they had been kicked out for questioning what they considered authoritarian policies.

The book and the article both provoked arguments and accusations in both directions. "Both sides believe that they were wronged and expressed feelings that they had been in some sense betrayed," says Ron Henzel, a senior researcher with Wonder Lake, Ill.-based counter-cult ministry Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. Henzel is investigating JPUSA at the request of a small group of former members, but he says he hopes to promote reconciliation and healing. "Everything in this controversy is based on subjective perceptions," he says.

One of the issues was finances – members who had turned over their resources to the group and worked there for years found themselves penniless when they left, with some lifetime members lacking even basic job-seeking skills. In the late 1990s, JPUSA formed a transition committee to address that problem and help those who want to leave save money and make a gradual adjustment to life outside the community, according to Bock.

Another issue was the rules, which some people would consider confining. Single members, for example, are discouraged from dating for the first year or even being alone with the opposite sex. No one is supposed to go out into the city without a buddy, and church is mandatory. Bock acknowledges that this kind of structure is unusual, but adds, "that's why if you feel called to be here you should be here; if not it's not for you."

Former members reported even stricter rules in the past, according to Henzel, but the group's reputation is changing.

"They've lightened up," says Sally Floyd, a former JPUSA member who left earlier this year to take care of sick relatives in Texas. She says, for example, that in the past, leadership was quite wary about letting anyone have a television, whereas now, nearly every family has one.

Floyd said that during the last six years when she was a member, she didn't hear of anyone leaving JPUSA on ugly terms. "I think most of that happened before I was there," she says.

And it's been several years since the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center has received any requests for help or counseling from former JPUSA members, according to Wellspring's human resource manager Wendy Pishvazadeh.

Bock describes the controversies as "painful" but also says the group learned a lesson. "When it's time for people to leave, we need to make sure they can leave and not feel like they have to create enemies."

"To honor and serve"

Lakefront's five-point mission statement – which begins "to honor and serve our Lord Jesus Christ in all we do and say" - is printed on the back of every employee business card. Bock also prays briefly at lunch meetings with clients and welcomes every opportunity to talk about his faith.

"A lot of people who I talk to on a weekly basis, they would never go to a church," Bock says. "I have a way into their lives because of my business relationships."

But Lakefront's policy is not to push religion on to people, but rather to make information available if people are interested, says Sara van Alkemade, credit manager for Lakefront and assistant general counsel for JPUSA. For example, there are free Bibles by the coffee, available in Spanish, Polish and English to anyone who wants them. Most customers choose to ignore them, but Alkemade says Lakefront gives out about 500 a year.

Sergio Lopez, a roofer who's been a Lakefront customer for 15 years, says no one has ever brought up religion with him while he was shopping, though he's aware company owners are "strong believers."

Perhaps surprisingly, not all Lakefront employees are Christian. About 30 hired employees work alongside the JPUSA volunteers and receive regular pay, benefits and 401-k retirement plans. And though they must agree to respect the mission statement, they don't have to be any particular religion.

Carlos Sanchez, the manager of Lakefront's largest store, on Western Avenue just north of Diversey Parkway, is not a JPUSA member. Sanchez says he wouldn't have stayed with Lakefront for six years "if they'd been big Bible pushers." He's "not really" religious, he says, but he's turned down higher-paying jobs with other companies because he likes the environment at Lakefront.

"More than anything, it's the respect they give you on a personal basis," he says. "Rather than feeling like somebody's always looking over your shoulder and your job's always on the line, you jump in and you're part of the team."

Sanchez says when he first started with Lakefront, he was shocked at how many customers would take the Bibles, given the crass, tough-guy nature of the roofing industry.

But overall, Alkemade says, Lakefront is much more concerned with being Christian than with converting others. "We make our business decisions prayerfully," she explains. This might mean forgiving a debt when a customer is going through an exceptionally hard time, or hiring someone out of the shelter or someone with a criminal background.

"We believe in giving people second chances," she says.

They also believe in helping the little guy; most of Lakefront's customers are small- and medium-sized companies, many of them run by Mexican or Polish immigrants.

"We try to serve [our customers] well," says van Alkemade. "We train them; we're willing to spend time with them answering questions. We want to help them succeed in business."

The broken bus

Originally, Jesus People USA was a group of about 25 people who traveled the country, conducting tent revivals and living in a bus with "Jesus" spelled out in huge cartoonish letters on the side. When the bus broke down in Chicago, the group found shelter at a local church. That was 1972. Two years later, the group was still there – but more than double the size and still growing.

"Any donations that we received we would eat, and as our community grew, we needed to have more self-supporting things," Bock says. "We started painting 'cause somebody asked us, 'Can you paint?' And we said, 'Sure.' 'Build a wall?' and we said, 'Yeah, we can do that.'"

Bock is so identified with the group that he uses the word 'we' as if telling a story from his own past, although he didn't join until 1978, when the early businesses had already been established and JPUSA had purchased its own buildings to house its members as well as its charities and businesses. Bock became immediately involved in the business end, working as a foreman for the painting business and eventually launching a roofing company, JP Roofing.

He emphasizes that the organization has always grown organically, letting God guide them, he says, and moving one step at a time. They never had a 5-year or a 10-year plan. They've had dozens of businesses over the years, from gift shops to carpet cleaning. Some of them have worked out; most of them haven't.

JP Roofing, for example, folded in the late '80s after a member of Jesus People was killed on the job. The rest of the group had left for lunch, but one worker stayed up alone and tried to move a beam by himself. When the beam fell off the roof, the worker tried to grab it and instead got pulled along with it.

The group's leaders realized it wasn't worth it to put their members and employees in such danger, Bock says, so instead they shifted their focus from roofing to merely providing roofing supplies.

"God led me to something different," he says.

In addition to managing the JPUSA businesses, Bock teaches others who are interested in funding their religious missions and charities through business. He's published two pamphlets, one a history of JPUSA and one a mission/business workbook, and he lectures at events like the JPUSA-sponsored Cornerstone Music Festival in western Illinois.

He says he also likes talking to regular business people about ethics. The second bullet-point in Lakefront's mission statement is "to maintain the highest level of ethical and moral standards towards our customers and employees."

Bock says at times the refusal to cut corners or engage in unethical practices has stifled his company's growth, but to him being moral is the most important aspect of the job. "It's not enough that the money goes to God," he said while addressing a group of about two dozen at Cornerstone in June. "You have to be ethical in your business."

But ethics don't mean Bock can't think like a businessman. "I probably am always thinking that way - how can we do things better, be more efficient, make a bit more money," he says. "It's not a sin to make a buck."

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