This is a story about six men, maybe seven, who make fine hand-joined and planed furniture out of native woods in Trujillo, Peru.
They are young men, not older than 26, who mostly hail from the mountain town of Moyobamba, located in the jungle, where they learned carpentry in small family-run shops.
Javier, now a master craftsman, grew up in a carpentry shop. He left home when he was 16 to travel, doing carpentry projects as he went. Norvil and Marden also grew up in carpentry shops. Raul and Geronimo, both in their late teens, are finishers-carpenter's helpers. They will be trained to become masters.
Alfonso learned carpentry at Don Bosco, a training program started by an Italian priest who wanted to teach boys fine carpentry skills. Alfonso came away from that program with skills and a set of woodcarving tools. He set up his own shop from which he sells doors, windows, and cabinetry for the local market.
And then there's Carlos. He's a skilled woodcarver, but he has trouble showing up for work. He was recently fired: He knew that if he didn't show up (and he had three chances) he couldn't work.
Will he stay fired? That's one of the questions that businessman Brad Ball and furniture maker Don Charlet are puzzling over. They are nontraditional missionaries who, along with businessman Chris Bolton, run Parish Furniture as an economic development project of the Peru Mission, a Christian community development project.
Parish Furniture's fine, high-end contemporary furniture attracted attention from architects, interior designers, and sales reps who stopped to admire the craftsmanship as they browsed furniture and lighting displayed at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair held recently in New York. These are people who don't blink to learn that an outdoor table wholesales for $6,000 because its level of craftsmanship required 120 hours of labor.
The designers were drawn to the furniture's clean lines and gentle curves, inspired by elements of the Peruvian landscape-sand dunes, weaving baskets, patterns in tile, downtown architecture. They were also drawn to the story. As Ball said, "It's fascinating to see, pretty much across the board, the interest in community development and nonprofit work in the Third World. . . . The Christian tradition has a lot to say about sustainable community development."
From its beginning the Peru Mission combined traditional church planting with diaconal projects like health clinics, language schools, and a micro-lending project for small women-run businesses. Parish Furniture, designed to provide discipleship along with steady employment and training for men, made contact with Javier, Marden, Norvil, Alfonso, and Carlos, who were already making their livings as carpenters. They made for the local Peru market furniture less refined than Parish decided to produce, because Peru is poor and people can't afford furniture made from expensive woods and labor-intensive designs.
The question was whether the carpenters had the skill to make a more refined product for the high-end U.S. market. Ball said, "They aren't used to spending 120 hours making one table. They weren't used to that level of detail. Now once you say this is the level we want to get to, they get there. . . . . They have abilities that have been lost in the U.S. . . . hand-planing, hand joining . . . carpenters in the U.S. used to be able to do that. . . . That higher skill is going away in the U.S."
Parish uses sustainable woods native to Peru: pona, shihuahuaco, nogal, and catahua, a wood alternative. It buys the wood from an area near Moyobamba inhabited by 150 native families who live on about 30,000 acres, half of which is forest.
Pona has the best story of all the woods, Brad Ball said: "No one has ever built furniture from it. It's salvaged from the jungle floor. The wood we're using now was cut four years ago. It's been lying on the jungle floor: It doesn't rot, doesn't get bugs. It reseeds itself and reaches maturity in 20 years."
Pona, which is almost black, does have downsides: "It's extremely hard. It dulls your blades. It's a palm, so the center of the wood is soft. The usable wood is the exterior wall, so you're limited in the size of pieces. It takes a bit of assembly. It takes labor to do that, but for our purposes that's outstanding. What we want is the ratio of raw material to labor to be heavily skewed toward labor. We're trying to employ men with the least effect to the environment."
Parish wants to make not only beautiful furniture but disciples. It emphasizes "cell production," where a master carpenter works with several younger guys, teaching skills and biblical understanding. Eventually, as business grows, the skilled craftsmen from Moyobamba will be able to train young men from the churches in Trujillo: "The end goal is to get young guys to go through the training, but before we can do that we need to get the business working."
Ball also described how the workers are developing a sense of community. One man from Moyobamba, an excellent carpenter, wanted to work in the project. The man, who was not married, had an autistic son who worked with him in his carpentry shop in the mountains. Parish invited the father to come and work for several weeks, but while he was away his son became ill. The men at Parish sat down with the father and prayed, reducing this "manly man" to tears: "The guys sat down and prayed and took a collection. These are not rich guys. They took a collection for his bus ticket and the child's health-care bills."
Five of the men and two of their children live together in an apartment and share kitchen duties. They do it to save money, said Ball: "We build everything around comfort; they build everything around cost."
Which comes back to the problem of Carlos. He's clearly a gifted woodcarver, whose work was on display in New York. They don't want to lose him from the project, so they are still feeling their way. Ball said, "In a deep poverty situation things don't work like they're supposed to. They're just broken. . . . Maybe he's got to ride a bus, and then another bus. And the buses don't always run on time. . . . And then maybe his mother gets ill. Now on some level, in a work environment, none of that matters. If you can't show up, you can't show up. But on the other hand, it's not so cut and dried."
The vision for combining enterprise with discipleship helped in raising start-up funds for Parish. Both Ball and Chris Bolton have MBAs: Parish Furniture is based on a business plan that Ball wrote as part of his MBA work at the University of Tennessee. Ball said they have raised money mostly from "Christian businessmen who could see the vision" and were concerned that "there's been in the evangelical community and in other Christian communities a lot of economic development work that is not economically intelligent. I'm sure it's good work and all, but it's not . . ." Ball paused to laugh, "So far ours doesn't seem so intelligent. We picked the worst year since the Great Depression to start this."
Ball and Charlet left Manhattan with decisions to make. One purpose in coming to the Furniture Fair was to get more information about pricing, marketing, and distributing their products. "People have been helpful, interested," Ball's wife Jennifer, a furniture designer, said. She spoke about originally being surprised to see that the Peruvian woodworkers' "level of skill was even better than we thought it would be. . . . We were excited to see how skilled they are because we would be able to show off their very best work."