I sat across from Tony Casson, the founder of the Mission Muffins workforce ministry. We were in a small coffee shop in downtown DC. 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 DC 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 DC that sells muffins to nearby office buildings. It is a ministry of the Central Union Mission, the homeless ministry and shelter that Tony stayed at after leaving prison. The employees of Mission Muffins are homeless men who live at the Mission.
This organization is an example of 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 learn 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 on, showing me how he works with his two current 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 gifts and the weaknesses of the employee. He works to not only teach his employees in a way that is helpful, but also strives 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. He also hopes production won’t be the only on-the-job training. He has a vision for the program to include a retail aspect, which he believes will be one of the most valuable aspects of the program.
We need a custom-made concession trainer, like a food truck with no wheels to park on our property facing Mass Ave because we have a lot of office pedestrian traffic… I think we will have a great opportunity to sell a lot, and the more we sell the more guys we can train. But [also] here’s an opportunity to teach the guys how to interact with people they would never interact with.
Looking at me with a grin, he said, “I mean these guys would never interact with you.” Gesturing to the people sipping their lattes around us, he continued on: “You [and] all these folks are our customers. But, these are people that our guys would not normally interact with. So, the overarching objective is to make them confident and comfortable…with their own skills and in their own being. And so that they can present their product to people.”
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, and prayerfully I’ll still be alive to see that happen, 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.
Throughout our entire conversation, Tony’s comments were marked by his humble faith. “It was tough to get the money to get started. But, we got started. It was all in God’s timing,” he said. “In my impatience in not having enough business now, I think it’s more like God [is saying], ‘I know when you’re ready…’ If God had blessed us with the [concession] trailer from the start, there’s no way I could have gotten them producing all three products. There’s no way.”
As we ended our conversation, I asked Tony about the most exciting thing about opening Mission Muffins, just two months ago. “Two things—the look on Will’s face the first time he took muffins out of the oven that he baked, and they were right, he recalled, “and the look on Sam’s face the first time he took muffins out of the oven that he baked.”
Tony’s love and support for his employees is evident. 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, check out more about their ministry here. If you are in the DC area, buy some muffins; if not, share this story with a friend in the DC 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.