Justice As Business: Staffing in a Way That Serves the Community

Bluewater Mission is a nondenominational church in Honolulu founded by Jordan and Sonya Seng in 2008. The couple met through InterVarsity Fellowship at Stanford University. They ministered in various roles together around the U.S., primarily with the Vineyard Church. Just before starting Bluewater Mission, Jordan was on staff as small groups’ minister at First Presbyterian in Honolulu.

Passionate for justice, community, and the arts, the Sengs have incorporated all three into the DNA of Bluewater. The justice ministry focuses primarily on serving prostitutes and victims of the sex trafficking industry. “Church Angels” reach out to streetwalkers, seeking to befriend them with the love of Jesus and let them know that if they want to leave their profession, there is a way out. The church operates Zoe House, a safe house where women and underage girls fleeing human trafficking can live, recover, and receive love and practical support. The ministry has also been active in seeking legislative changes in Hawaii to enact anti-trafficking laws and enforce stronger penalties against pimps.

Since its beginning, Bluewater Mission has committed 25 percent of all offerings to ministries to help the poor. “A community of generosity is really what’s at the heart of justice in the world,” Jordan Seng says. “Justice and material generosity is really at the heart of what Jesus teaches, as I read the Gospels.”

Providing shelter is a big focus for the church: in addition to Zoe House, Bluewater runs additional community houses. Bluewater members live in these homes but open them up to people in the community who are coming out of a variety of tough circumstances—homelessness, domestic violence, prison. But the Sengs kept seeing the limits of that help. “The ministry of these houses has been fruitful,” Jordan says. “We’ve seen life changes and some of these individuals have become incredibly valuable contributors to our faith community. But what we found was that it was really difficult to rehabilitate these people economically. No one wanted to give them a job. And so we decided to start a business.”

Jordan says he’d felt some prompting from God in this direction, but it took him a couple years to respond. He credits the Lord with the idea of a restaurant.

Bluewater launched the new endeavor in February 2014 and named it Seed Restaurant. “The name speaks of growth,” Jordan explained in a radio interview the month the restaurant opened its doors. “It speaks of birth. It speaks of rejuvenation. It’s a very potent biblical symbol.”

Seed offers healthy, locally sourced meals while providing entry-level employment “with paths for development.” The restaurant’s staff is composed of individuals from the church’s community homes and the Zoe house, as well as employees without such traumatic backgrounds (most of these are from the church). The “stable” employees are each paired with an “at-risk” employee. As Sonya Seng explained in an interview with The Huffington Post, “A lot of people we employ need a little extra care. So they get to exist in a broader community and that’s where the bulk of the rehabilitation is done.”

For Jordan, Seed is “justice as business.” He explains that the restaurant serves “just” food. “We do our best to source locally, from sustainable, chemical-free farms.” Another aim, of course, is to provide just employment. He elaborates: “We’re employing people that face challenges in the workplace. They need a chance to work and to grow.” And, he says, the restaurant does justice in general for the people of the community because “our people [from Bluewater] can volunteer there and work and it be an expression of ministry.”

“Those of us who try to carry the order of heaven into this world need to have the solution to injustice, the solution to hunger, the solution to oppression,” Jordan preaches. “And that solution is radical generosity.”

Ryland Young, the restaurant’s assistant manager, says the “stable” employees could find easier jobs, but they choose SEED because of the mission and the personal difference they can make.

So far, on average about 40 percent of the “at-risk” employees are making it—either staying on successfully at SEED or gaining sufficient skills to land jobs elsewhere.

From Rock Star Catering to Kitchen Ministry

David Kiernan is the executive chef at Seed. David came to Christ from listening to Bluewater sermons online and corresponding with Jordan Seng.  Years later, he and Seng met in person at a conference in San Diego. The Sengs had just decided to launch the restaurant and had found a location and laid the groundwork. David’s background was as a catering chef to some famous rock bands, including Metallica and the Rolling Stones. “I asked him if he’d be willing to move to Honolulu and become the chef at this crazy justice restaurant we were doing,” Jordan recalls. “And he said ‘Yes.’ He flew out, and I picked him up at the airport and drove him to the restaurant. He put on an apron and started cooking even immediately, before he’d unpacked his suitcase!”

From Streetwalker to Waitress

At age 14, Mary Nelson was on the streets of New York City plying the world’s oldest profession to survive. As an older teen, she moved to Honolulu. She says her work garnered her money and jewelry, but hollowed out her insides. “I worked the streets for 30 years here,” she says. “It was awful. If I could explain it in a few words: I was a living corpse.”

Sonya Seng met Mary on the streets and worked hard at developing a friendship and gaining her trust. Finally, Mary was ready for a different life. She showed up at Bluewater Mission and they invited her to work at Seed. She started in the back kitchen because she felt she didn’t know how to interact normally with customers. After six months, Sonya persuaded her to come out front. Mary quickly became a favorite for her bubbly, irrepressible spirit. “As I was healing,” she says, “for the first time in my life I didn’t feel judged.”

Results Measured in Changed Lives

Bluewater Mission had to close the restaurant in March 2016 because it wasn’t making it financially. While this was obviously sad for all involved, leaders are undeterred in their commitment to continued ministry. General Manager Julie Olsen says, “I was looking through the list of people that I’ve gotten to know here. And probably 18 of our employees have gone out and done really well because of their time here. Maybe financially we didn’t make it,” she says, “but, look at what we did. That’s just priceless—there’s no way to put a dollar figure on that.” She adds: “This is not the end…we’re going to continue to look for ways to express our heart for social justice.”

Jordan Seng concurs. “The experience of Seed Restaurant will be measured in terms of numbers of lives that have been changed,” he says. “I’m excited for what happens next.”

Topics: Church Mission, Job Training, Justice

About the Author

Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP).