I sat across from Tony Casson, the founder of the Mission Muffins workforce ministry. We were in a small coffee shop in downtown Washington, D.C. As we jumped into our conversation, Tony said, “You know it’s kind of interesting because I moved into [a homeless shelter] two years ago direct from prison.”
I had asked Tony to meet with me so I could learn more about his organization, but what struck me was Tony’s story and his humble faith and determination to serve homeless men in D.C. for God’s glory.
Tony told me bits and pieces of his testimony. “My relationship with God came late in life, after a nearly successful suicide attempt before I went to prison,” he said. “I needed every minute of the four years I was in prison to develop my relationship with God. It’s kind of weird, but it was time that he knew better than I that I needed.”
Tony got the idea for Mission Muffins while in prison. He realized he had squandered his gifts and talents before entering prison and became determined to use them for God’s glory when he was released. He also learned of several organizations on the West Coast that used employment as an inroad to effectively and sustainably serve the poor. Putting these two ideas together, he came up with Mission Muffins.
Mission Muffins is a workforce development ministry in the heart of D.C. that sells muffins to nearby office buildings. It is a ministry of the Central Union Mission, the homeless ministry and shelter where Tony stayed after leaving prison. The employees of Mission Muffins are homeless men who live at the mission.
This organization is an example of a program that is fighting poverty in a way that is biblical and effective. The men in the program work at the bakery, undergo training in basic business skills (e.g., marketing, accounting) and soft skills (e.g., punctuality, respect for authority) as well as learning about the biblical meaning of work.
Tony emphasized that this foundation is essential, saying,
It’s important that these guys understand this is not something that we just came up with, as an idea for them to stay out of trouble or to advance themselves. It’s [that] we have an obligation. God tells us he expects us to work in a certain way in a certain manner and to put everything that we have into it. And to do it to glorify him and to lift him up. I try to teach [my employees] what free money costs them. Because a lot of guys will collect disability rather than get a job making a couple hundred bucks more because they’ll lose the disability [checks]. But they don’t understand what else they lose while they’re collecting the disability [checks].
I asked Tony if the program helps employees think about their gifts and talents. “Yes. And I think that it is important—you know I’ve found a lot of these guys don’t really know how to think on that level. They haven’t been exposed to enough to say ‘I really like this’ or ‘I’m really good at this,’” he responded. “That’s why I think…we need to identify the gifts that God gave them. I think that identifying them as individuals is really important, and it’s hard because the demands on any program will ultimately be numbers. [Donors] want to see numbers… [But] numbers …do not [always] tell the human side of things.”
Tony continued, showing me how he has worked with two employees*:
Will—he loves to play basketball, so I talk like a basketball coach. I put [my instructions] in that context. And he was a drug dealer, so I put them in that context as well because business is business…It requires some of the same creativity and skill set. It’s just redirecting that know-how. And, it presents its problems because honesty, integrity, and character are important and those things aren’t developed overnight.
This depiction of how Tony works with his employees shows how he individualizes the program to fit the experiences, gifts, and weaknesses of each employee. He strives not only to teach his employees in a way that is helpful but also to develop their strengths and overcome their weaknesses.
The challenges facing them are a lot greater than I ever anticipated just because of the way they grew up and the mindset they have. Not an hour goes by where I’m not in a discussion with one of them ‘In the real world this would not be acceptable, and here are the reasons why.’ So it’s a challenge…But I do see that they take enormous pleasure in doing something they’ve never done before and that they never thought they could do.
As our conversation took a turn towards the future, Tony shared that his hope is that the current operation is just the beginning. He not only wants to sell muffins but also scones, handheld pies, and Mission Mud, their own brand of coffee [Scones and Mission Mud coffee are now a reality].
When I asked him about what success would look like for Mission Muffins, he said,
When the guy who makes the muffins is comfortable standing out there in the trailer, ringing up the sale, talking to the customer, handling both the compliments and the negative feedback, then I will feel like we have actually greatly influenced somebody’s life and given them an opportunity.
Hopefully when the program is fully matured…it will have between 6-10 guys in it at all times in various stages of classroom learning, hands-on production, or retail… And it will turn out guys who are prepared to do something. The future will mean more to them because they’ll understand what it means looking at it biblically, but they’ll also understand what it means to them.
We can learn so much about how to love our neighbors through Tony’s story. Through Mission Muffins, he serves the poor in a way that is biblical, effective, and sustainable. His program respects the dignity of the poor, it utilizes their gifts and talents, and connects them with their purpose to work for the glory of God. He is already making a difference, and I am looking forward to seeing what God will do through him and the Mission Muffins program in the future.
If you’d like to support Mission Muffins, read more about their ministry here. If you are in the D.C. area, buy some muffins; if not, share this story with a friend in the D.C. area. Tony gave me some free samples for the IFWE staff, and let me tell you—those muffins are absolutely delicious.
*The names of the employees have been changed for their privacy.
Editor’s note: Read more examples of biblical and effective programs empowering the poor to flourish in Love Your Neighbor: Restoring Dignity, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty.
On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. Read Kathryn’s full interview with Tony Casson, which was previously published on June 22, 2016.