I have previously expressed my appreciation for the popular TV show, Undercover Boss, in which business leaders from large corporations spend several days working alongside lower-level employees.
In an episode on Subway, Don Fertman, the restaurant chain’s Chief Development Officer, goes undercover at several locations across the United States. Most of the episode includes your typical Undercover Boss fare — a bumbling executive, dedicated workers, teer-jerker employee recognitions — but I was struck by a particular branch that Fertman visits along the way.
Located in the heart of Buffalo, New York, the restaurant is located in the same building as True Bethel Baptist Church, and further, is owned and operated as a franchise by the church itself. The reason? To provide employment and job training to the surrounding neighborhood.
The complete episode is provided below. To watch the piece on True Bethel, jump to the 24-minute mark:
After completing his rather routine employee duties, Fertman spends a good deal of time chatting with Reverend Darius Pridgen (28:30), the head pastor, who explains the origins and aim of the idea:
The reason we actually put it in the church was because there weren’t a lot of opportunities in this neighborhood when I got here. We had a high murder rate, and a lot of people not working. So, a lot of people always talk about, “Just give people jobs.” Well, that’s not the key, if they haven’t been trained. So we started collecting an offering. We called it a “franchise offering” – literally called it a “franchise offering.” But we’ve got to do more than build a business. We’ve got to train people. We try to push people into the next level of life.
The episode concludes with Fertman waiving the franchise fee for the church to open another similarly suited store in a nearby neighborhood. In addition, he encourages a room of Subway executives to consider it as a model for the future.
Whether those ideas actually pan out, it’s encouraging to see work and opportunity valued in such a way. True Bethel did not sit idly by, assuming a narrow, fatalistic mindset, despite the trouble that surrounded them. Instead, it saw human dignity and potential, and took the necessary steps to help others achieve personal fulfillment, transforming their community in turn. Stretching well beyond the common constraints of acceptable “church ministry,” True Bethel reached directly into their economic ecosystem.
But although it’s encouraging to see Subway recognize the value of the True Bethel model, we should note that this was, first and foremost, an independent, bottom-up initiative by the church. Businesses have a role to play, but church communities needn’t twiddle their thumbs in waiting. Non-profit initiatives and ministries should remain core features of Christian service, but the church needn’t limit its imagination to soup kitchens, prayer meetings, and daycare centers. There is more work to be done.
The church must prophecy and minister in a way that recognizes all areas of human need and human service, and that includes the economic sphere. Work and service are central to Christian mission, and True Bethel is setting a great example in helping folks connect to society as they further participate and excel in this divine call.