Monday, April 18, 2011

Through a Door and onto the Rooftop of the World

You might be wondering how we got involved with developing mini-mills in Central Asia.  Well here's the story. Enjoy!

It was through a wardrobe door that we entered into the enchanted land that Linda Cortwright calls “wild fibers”. It was a brisk fall day in September when my mother received a midmorning call from the Council of International Programs USA, a non-profit educational exchange program based out of Cleveland, Ohio. They were planning a series of stops for a group of fiber artisans from Kyrgyzstan and we happened to be the closest mill available. They wanted to know if we would give their group a tour. Of course we said yes, and within a few short weeks a group of twelve artisans and two translators showed up at the mill and changed how we viewed the world forever.

Kyrgyzstan is a land locked country bordered by China and a bunch of other “stans” I can hardly spell! The country is literally covered in mountains and plateaus. The Pamir Mountains, which means “Rooftop of the World”, runs along the southern border of Kyrgyzstan. The passage through these mountains has been considered a strategic trade route in history past. They are still arguably one of the greatest “undiscovered” tourist destinations in the world. Not only are they home to one of the largest glaciers outside of the Arctic Circle but within their borders are thousands of semi-nomadic people who are amazing artists and wonderful shepherds of sheep, goats, camels… and yaks!
Historically, Kyrgyzstan was the hub through which many of the routes of the Old Silk Road traveled, connecting Eastern, Southern, and Western Asia with the Mediterranean world, as well as parts of Northern Africa and Eastern Europe. Cities in Kyrgyzstan such as Osh, Bishkek and Naryn, which still exist today, were frequented by every merchant imaginable on their way to or from the Orient. And while today it is not the economic center that it once was it is still a critical link for us in the fiber world.
“Mein etim JC”, I said as I handed each one a cup of tea and a cookie. And that was the extent of my broken Kyrgyz language (a friend had emailed me just before they arrived). “We’re so glad you could come and visit our mill.” It truly was an honor to show them around the mill and describe what each machine did in processing fiber. When we finished at the mill we invited them over to our home and enjoyed a meal. Finally we took them to our felting studio. Showing a Kyrgyz how to felt is like teaching Payton Manning how to throw a football. They were very gracious and greatly appreciated how our machines were able to do what they did by hand.
What happened next will forever be etched in my memory. Our felting studio was turned into a bustling bazaar as each one pulled out their artwork and put it on display. The room was a buzz as everyone clamored for us to view their pieces. It was then that we discovered why these were the top twelve representatives hand-picked from their country. Their artwork was amazing. Every single piece was done by hand, turning raw fiber into amazing finished products. The free-hand designs were so unique, intricate, colorful and flawless. I felt so privileged to be a part of such an eclectic gathering of fiber artists.

But as with any trip into “spare room”, you suddenly find yourself back in the real world. I’m convinced that all good-byes are awkward – this one was no exception. As I stumbled for something appropriate to say, each one kept speaking blessings on our mill and family. It was very humbling. We attempted to bless them as well and asked if there was anything we could do for them. In unison the group erupted in spirited Kyrgyz. As the comments died down the translator said they had asked if we would come and help them put mills like ours in their villages.
There are rare moments in your life when you suddenly realize that what’s in front of you is undeniably what you were born to do. God spoke in that moment and said, “JC, will you serve these people too?” I smiled and explained that as God allowed, we would do whatever we could to serve them. “This is good. We will pray for this too!” they said.
As they drove away I now knew the path in front of me. Growing up I had never dreamed that God would lead me halfway around the world to work with fiber producers and artisans, and connect them with farmers and artisans in the US. As an ex-collegiate football player and youth pastor of 12 years I didn’t know the first thing about fiber compared to these people. They were craftsmen… true artists in every sense of the word. I knew following this path would require that I become a student. The next day I went back to work with a new perspective on who I was, what our company was about and how God wanted to use it.
Shortly after this I met a wise older woman during a guild presentation at Malabar Farms who came up, shook my hand and told me, “If you’re not too smart, you’ll learn something new everyday!” I realized that each day in the mill was now an opportunity to learn. There’s a trail of tears, sweat, defeat, headache, and hard work that’s brought us to the present. There are many customers who have graciously, patiently worked with us and allowed us to fail, learn and grow from our mistakes in trying to make all things beautiful – and to them we are forever grateful!
In March of 2010 we took our first trip to Kyrgyzstan. We spent seventeen days there and met with 55 different groups of people from government and business leaders and other important organizations to village artisans and shepherds. We even had the chance to see some of the friends who had visited us in the states. We witnessed first hand their situation and their needs. We listened. We asked questions.
It was, for lack of a better term, a beautiful mess. The village people there make in a year what most Americans bring home in a week. In Kyrgyzstan you’re either very rich or very poor – there is no in between. We met an elderly woman who works with her daughter and granddaughter year around to make four traditional shrydaks (a 9’ x 6’ felted rug) which they hope they can sell for a little more than a $100 a piece to a local co-op. It’s a good year if they make $600. We met Cashmere goat farmers who get $8-12 per pound for some of the finest fiber I had ever seen.
This trip brought such clarity to God’s mission of our business. It reminded us of the need for beauty to be recognized for what it is straining and yearning to be, integrity to be championed in the midst of relationships with both God and man, and justice to be sought out at any cost. These aspects (while always there) were brought to new heights in this “rooftop of the world” country. How could we develop a solid business strategy that would allow us to help bring economic, social and spiritual transformation for the rural people of this mountainous region?
Over the last twelve months we’ve sought out and partnered with 100’s of people here in the states and abroad to develop a solid business plan for the development of a network of mini-mills that can be used in Central Asia among the remote mountain region villages – to serve those who raise some of the world’s rarest fibers and create some of the most amazing art. While we have no intention of closing our business here in the states, we know we must somehow expand our business to serve our friends overseas. It has forced us to rethink the cottage industry model – to streamline it and make it a powerful tool that any small farmer or artisan can use to realize a sustainable and profitable business both here and abroad.
Our strategic plan is to develop each mill in four stages: first scouring, then opening/dehairing, carding/felting and finally spinning. The first phase will require the initial start up capital of $20,000 of which our business will contribute a quarter, our partners in Kyrgyzstan will raise a quarter and we will raise the other half from contributors here. From then on the business there and here will provide the additional capital needed for each new phase. However, additional fundraising will be needed towards specific projects as they become evident (training, supplies, etc.)
We are presently planning a trip to return to Kyrgyzstan on April 21st to interview potential business partners (a national partner is required by law to do business there), to purchase Cashmere fiber and artwork, and to allow God to show us more of what it is that he wants us to do there. While on our first trip I took with me two business advisors and a photographer. This time I will be taking my wife and my two oldest children. It’s necessary to take them with me as we will be required to live there for a period of time once we get the business up and running, and we believe this will help with that transition. While our business is contributing $4000 to this trip there is still an additional $4000 needed.
Our goal in raising funds is not to find a few large contributors but to spread out the involvement as widely as possible. We believe it’s important to invite as many who are interested to journey with us to the ends of the earth. Therefore, we’ve partnered with Interlink Ministries out of Kidron, Ohio to be a financial institution through which donors can make tax deductible contributions to our project called: MSF in Kyrgyzstan. To learn more about how you can help us raise these funds please contact me by phone 330-778-0078 or email: Here’s what we’re praying for... What if 400 farms from Ohio contributed $10 to help their neighbors in the Pamir Mountains acquire value added steps to their exotic fiber and art work and then helped us network with two or three of their friends to give $10 towards installing a scouring facility in the future? I’m confident that you can help us realize this goal.
One night sitting down at my desk with my head in my hands ready to throw in the towel, God showed me Psalm 23 as if I had never read it before. I cried out to him, “You are my shepherd. I have no wants. Lead me in paths of righteousness for your name sake…” I’m sure there are many more valleys that await us in the path ahead but there is also an amazing mountain range called “the rooftop of the world” and a doorway through which we can enter that magical place. A place where the air of heaven is sweet and the people are kind and humble but in great need. We pray that as God allows we will do whatever we can to serve them.
JC Christensen owns and operates Morning Star Fiber in Apple Creek, Ohio and raises a small flock of Icelandic sheep in the tradition of his grandparents – and raises a larger flock of 8 children.

1 comment:

JC said...

You can contribute to this project by clicking on the "Causes" link on the home page in the top left corner.