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Retail evangelism

"Retail evangelism" Continued...

Issue: "Memorial Day 2005," May 28, 2005

By contrast, C28's gear is cutting edge SoCal youth-"real clothes," as one teenage shopper put it-some with Scripture, most without. The company also markets its signature brand, NOTW, or Not of This World, a phrase distilled from Colossians 2:8: "See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ."

So, how does hawking trendy $50 sweatshirts invite kids to discontinue such deceptive philosophies as materialism? In a March 6 New York Times Magazine article that consisted mainly of straight reporting, writer Rob Walker couldn't resist a wry poke at the apparent contradiction: "To battle the hollow deceptive philosophies that derive from human tradition," Mr. Walker wrote, "C28 sells several brands of apparel and accessories. . . ."

Mr. Barreto said he gets that kind of criticism all the time, especially from Christians, who charge that C28 bankrupts its own message by aping popular culture.

The entrepreneur disagrees. "We provide a positive alternative for a lifestyle that already exists," he said, noting Jesus's habit of consorting with sinners. "To be relevant, we've got to be where the kids are. How do you reach the lost if you're not where the lost are?"

Of those who accuse him of shamelessly hawking God for profit, he says, "I invite them to take a look at our balance sheets. I didn't look at the numbers for four years-I was afraid to. Meanwhile, my board is saying to me, 'This is really honorable, Aurelio, but when are we going to make a profit?' I have put $1.6 million into these stores and have not received a salary yet."

Mr. Villegas fields similar complaints at the store level. "Christians will come in here and say, 'You're merchandising God!' My response is, spend some time here . . . check out the fruit."

As an example, he points out the El Cajon store's "prayer board," papered over with Post-its. "Pray that my dad stops doing drugs and drinking," one girl wrote. Another scribbled, "Pray that my friend's bone marrow transplant would be OK."

It's OK for kids, or adults for that matter, to "hang" at the stores, C28 designers having installed bean bag chairs and touch-screen music players for the purpose. Store workers are trained to talk with customers, ask about their lives, follow up on what they've talked about before-and, when opportunity knocks, share the gospel. More than 700 customers have professed faith in Christ since the first store opened, according to Mr. Barreto. When they do, store personnel make introductions to area churches and also provide a free Bible. Sometimes, with parents' permission, C28 salespeople disciple kids at weekly breakfast meetings.

So, is the whole Jesus-at-the-mall thing too pushy? Ashley, 19, a San Diego State University student who said she doesn't go to church, did not think so. Asked how she liked the store, she shrugged: "It's cool. The people are really nice." And the evangelism? "I don't mind. It gives people a way to represent their beliefs without being obnoxious."

That's music to Aurelio Barreto's ears. "I had Christian friends, but I went 37 years without ever hearing the gospel," he said. "That's why we have these stores. We want to reach people like me."

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