Talk in an iron worker’s hands gets right to the point.
“Why is my business named ‘Grace Iron Works’?,” reflected its owner Leon Salmon of Jamaica, Queens. “I am lost without purpose. God gave me a gift to do this.”
Salmon’s small company has done steel work for post offices, iron grills and steel gates for home windows, and, Saturday a week ago, repair work on a chain link fence and gate surrounding Humble Heart Fellowship Ministry.
In 2007 the city had 516,827 establishments that employed less than 50 people. Because of the low social barriers in the city to outsiders, many of the small businesses were started by immigrants and migrants. However, they were buffeted by the recession that began in December 2007. The city was particularly hard hit because it had become too dependent on the large financial firms. The small businesses have provided a pool of resilience, innovation and, more and more, a faith-based ethics and vision for the whole society.
The iron worker Salmon often does low or no profit jobs like the one he was doing when we caught up with him. He takes these jobs with a divine business sense that came to him after his spiritual renewal. Cautious and quiet, Salmon stumbled into his words as the conversation gathered speed. By the end he was enjoying the talking and hammering out several chapters of advice and encouragement.
“I am motivated to work,” he told us, adding with some hesitation, “In 1996 I became a Christian.” Salmon came from Jamaica where he was also an iron worker. He was energetic, disciplined and restless to make his mark in the city.
One day with a hopeful assertion, he told his fellow passengers on their way to work on the Jamaican-run caravan mini-bus that “God helps those who help themselves.” He surely was thinking about his own efforts, his pride and a little bit about emboldening himself for the hard day’s work coming up.
One of his fellow riders, who rode the caravan everyday with Salmon, broke his usual taciturn demeanor during the morning ride with a question. He cocked his head inquisitively and asked Salmon, “Where is that quote from?”
Salmon always noticed how the man greeted him with a smile in the morning but had seldom heard him say anything. He replied with certainty, “It’s in the Bible.” Like a lot of people, when in doubt about the provenance of a proverb, Salmon thought it would be safe to say that it is in the Bible. The man didn’t nod in agreement like Salmon expected. Instead, the stranger observed, “No, that quote is not in the Bible.” Because the stranger spoke with quiet assurance, not belligerently, Salmon didn’t take offence. He was impressed.
Before the stranger left, he gave Salmon his card with the invitation, “If you ever want to talk, give me a call.” In fact later they did talk some. The young iron worker was feeling a spiritual hunger.
“One wonderful Saturday, I thought I would go to church,” the iron monger said. He had the name of the church from his fellow van rider but had no idea if the church was open. The fact that it was open seemed fateful to Salmon.
He recalled, “Lo! Behold” I went there and it was open.”
Salmon had visited a lot of churches up this point, but this church presented him with a challenge to work hard. “It was different from other churches I had visited. What was different was that they were searching the Scriptures.” He was startled about how much work was demanded but perhaps intrigued by its similarity to learning a craft.
It is not unusual that working class craftsmen see a parallel between their work and the craft of spiritual discipline (as described in Hugh MacLeod’s Piety and Poverty and E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class). The 16th Century tinkerer John Bunyan penned the spiritual classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. More recently, wannabe motorcycle repairman Robert M. Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and a real motorcycle repairman Matthew B. Crawford wrote Shop Class as Soulcraft.
“I had questions myself, but I hadn’t known how to find out the answers from the Bible. And you had to learn how to search if you attended that church. So, I learned how to do that there.”
That was about 1996.
The young Jamaican-American decided that he would kick off his new life as a Christian by establishing a business reflecting his faith. Since then, he has worked hard at both. He goes to Springfield Church of Christ and employs a few workers at Grace Iron Works. However, he got hammered by the economic downturn. And it challenged his faith.
When he became his own proprietor, Salmon was determined to do business differently. He would be fair, generous to those without money, and concerned for the welfare of his employees. “I have flaws, of course, but I pray over them, each day.”
“With a new customer or stranger, I say to myself, you [the customer] are the centerpiece for God and me right now.” If the customer is poor or a non-profit like a church, Salmon cuts them a break on the price.
“If I go to a [poor or non-profit] customer, I will say I need to pay, say 3 or 4 people and base my charge on that. I will give them a break even if it is a loss for me…”
However, in the economic downturn Salmon found that he was stressed both with an inability to help poorer customers and to care for his employees. “For my employees if I don’t pay Con Ed, then the guys will go home without a job.”
“For a couple of years I have questioned myself about why I am not financially prospering,” he reflected. Our society puts a dollar sign on self-worth. Even some churches preach that prosperity is a sign of your faith and God’s favor.
“One day, a couple of months ago, I realized that my purpose wasn’t my purpose but God’s purpose. He wants me to be spiritually profitable.”
From that moment Salmon has been working on a God-centered focus customer service. The customer is not so much a king but a person loved by God. Consequently, Salmon offers economic fairness and something more if a customer asks. “I see people don’t necessarily see a need for this, but at the same time would love to have something more in life.”
Salmon already realized that he had an entrepreneurial zest for work and a job well done. He now also realized that he had an ability to talk about God that had been honed by years of searching and talking about the Bible. African American artist and musician Gertrude Morgan called the Apostle John, who wrote the Book of Revelation, “the Revelator.” Salmon sees his calling as the more humble one of talking about what the Apostles wrote. He says his role is to be “the Conversator.” He tries to make every word count.
“Whether it is a hundred words or 10-20 minutes, I should be in a conversation about God.” Sure enough, our conversation soon turned to spiritual advice. Slow to talk before, Salmon now seemed to be like a godfather worried that he hadn’t given all the advice that was needed to a godson. He was anxious to get his words out quickly enough.
Salmon asked if I had heard of Harold Camping, the Berkeley, California area prophet of the end of the world on that very day of our visit.
The iron worker harkened back to one of the greatest Rabbis in Jewish history. “Gamaliel was a famous rabbi during the time of Jesus. I take Gamaliel’s approach.” Gamaliel, who was perhaps the teacher of the Apostle Paul, preached tolerance of Jesus’ disciples with the proverb, “If it [Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah] be of men, it will come to naught, but if it be of God, you will not be able to overthrow it; lest perhaps you be found even to fight against God."
Salmon didn’t agree with Camping but advised, “I don’t get down on this guy who says the world is ending. We will see what happens.” He thought it was easy to kick a puppy but harder to live an honorable life.
The now voluble iron worker said we can work on our own lives. He then covered some other areas of life with what sounded like good advice.
I started to leave a couple of times, but each time Salmon reached out to impart one more nugget of wisdom. Finally, he said, “Let me give this feast before you go.” He advised that maybe I thought God was asking me to go too far and too quick in my spiritual life. “If you watch a Mom taking a baby by hand to walk up the steps, the baby is learning to walk. After the first step or two, the baby stops and looks around. The Mom is patient. God is like that too.”
Salmon said good-bye as we headed down the road, calling out another bit of advice, “The prophet Jeremiah said, Let God guide you as you take each step.” And we went our way silently giving thanks for the interview feast that “the Conversator” had just given us.