Of rugs and redemption: the James Tufenkian story

Amidst exploitation and dehumanization, he seized redemptive opportunities.

Appears in Winter 2007 Issue: Finding our way to great work
December 1st, 2007

Even in his youth James Tufenkian was haunted by recurring nightmares that his life had suddenly ended and he had produced little of any lasting value. Existential angst in tow, he devised this sober three-step program to avoid his most sincere dread: fruitlessness.

First, get a great education. Second, make a ton of money. And then, when these first two were accomplished, serve God and make the world a better place with what he had left.

Early in his career during the 1980's it appeared that "step two" of Tufenkian's plan was well along. In a few short years, he had revolutionized the disorganized Oriental rug industry by successfully branding and marketing quality carpets, controlling their production, and designing them specifically for high-end, interior designers. His factories in Nepal were churning out beautiful hand-made rugs that were fetching top dollar in New York City show rooms.

Money and accolades were pouring in, but his fears of fruitlessness would not subside. No longer wishing to wait for retirement to tackle "stage three," Tufenkian resolved to discover a way to do God's work of making the world a better place directly through the running of his various business ventures.

As he opened his heart, mind, and entrepreneurial gifts to this new goal, God revealed a multiplicity of ways in which his immediate work and industry could serve God's desire to heal a broken world.

Immediate vocational labours

Tufenkian set out developing innovative entrepreneurial solutions for the brokenness he found within the different areas of his business environment. Business, it turned out, was not merely a means to the end of making money for charity. Business itself could glorify God.

Tufenkian refused to employ children, and he provided the children of his workers with a quality Montessori education. He offered both eastern and western medical care to his workers, and he gave living wages to his employees—far above local market rates. Tufenkian refused to bribe government officials in Nepal for special treatment, as many of his competitors did. His company sought to be environmentally friendly with its dyes and production measures, and they even devised an innovative recycling system for the factory's use of Nepal's precious water resources.

"We will make beautiful things of lasting value" Tufenkian said. He refused to go "down market" and compromise his standards, despite a real opportunity to make higher margins by mass producing low quality carpets. According to Tufenkian, the first chapters of Genesis attest that God does not make junk, so neither does he. God is glorified when creation is shaped, molded, and formed so as to honour the artistry and craftsmanship of its Creator.

No mechanizing process

As a result of this belief and conviction, Tufenkian discovered a useful by-product. He found that his workers were excited and empowered when they had the opportunity to do their best, unhurried work. He honoured the biblical truth that his workers were made in the image of God, and they must be allowed to exercise their God-given responsibility to steward God's beauty. A decision to fully mechanize the process and mass produce bland, sub-standard, or dull carpets would reduce his workers to a menial function that would compromise the very creativity and responsibility that made them human.

Finally, Tufenkian devoted a portion of his revenues to establish a foundation that would initiate new, entrepreneurial ventures for the economic development and holistic restoration of his homeland, Armenia. In the wake of debilitating communism and rampant corruption, Tufenkian believed that it was industry, and not charity, that would prove successful in the rehabilitation of Armenia. Mere charity certainly would have proved easier for Tufenkian, but it would only have further corrupted his homeland.

His foundation devised a boutique of creative economic development initiatives for Armenia. They set up a sheep husbandry program that provides herds to local shepherds and later collects the lambs to distribute elsewhere. They organized a women's knitting cooperative which provides jobs, crafts-training, and even turns a profit. The foundation has replanted neglected vineyards and devastated forests, funded Christian radio stations, started a youth photography business, and it established a chain of luxury hotels designed to increase tourism and economic development in the capital city and the beautiful Armenian countryside.

Tufenkian's ventures spring from, first, his identification of some spoiling or corruption in the world and, then, the application and organization of some creative and imaginative resource in God's creation. For him, the work of redemption is a creative enterprise. When Tufenkian found that Armenia's valuable fruit resources were being lost because of poor shipping and storage, he decided to launch a fruit preserve business to harness this resource and turn a seasonal business into a year-round venture. Tufenkian fruit jams now win international awards for excellence and are sold the world over, significantly increasing revenues and lifting the living standard for countless Armenian farmers.

Flourishing in wilderness

Tufenkian the entrepreneur locates the dysfunction and the untapped resources, and he finds a way to create flourishing in what appears to be a wilderness. His creative ventures have provided tens of thousands of jobs both in Nepal and Armenia in many different industries. These businesses not only pay well, but they provide their workers and surrounding communities with education, health care, craftsmanship, and a beautiful, sustainable, and fecund environment. Tufenkian seeks not to leave the environment just as he found it. He desires to leave it better.

We do not lack the passion, but the imagination. A formidable challenge that we face at the Center for Faith and Work is not convincing others that God truly wants to transform the way they work in the marketplace, but in developing in them an imagination and creativity capable of responding to the diverse and changing redemptive possibilities in their unique spheres. The varied manifestations of sin and the possibilities for healing and restoration look different in each career, market, culture, position, and time. The realization of creation-redemption embodied in the making of ice skates looks inevitably different when collecting garbage, writing editorials, practicing law, hitting a baseball, or caring for children.

James Tufenkian's call was and is unique. His story and his call is a model for what I would call God-shaped creativity. In an ever-changing marketplace Christians are constantly witness to new manifestations of exploitation, prejudice, and dehumanization. With these destructive elements come corresponding new and exciting opportunities for redemptive work which must be seized.

There is no uniform list or blueprint of rules, guidelines, or steps to incarnating the God-shaped imagination in the workplace. Each person with a discerning faith must write her own. This is the terrifying and yet exciting truth that lies at the heart of the faith at work movement. Creation-redemption unfolds uniquely in 10,000 workplaces.

The church requires not only saints equipped with the passion to follow creation-redemption into all spheres of life, but also the necessary imagination and creativity to locate the new and changing opportunities for restoration and human flourishing. If I were to ask the majority of Christian rug salespeople how they might live the faith, they might come up with some words about being kind, honest, and sharing Christ with their coworkers. They might realize that God cares about what they do, but could not imagine the depth of transformation that God is capable of in their business. Tufenkian's second and third goals are not mutually exclusive. He has gone beyond the platitudes of business ethics and plumbed the depths of what it looks like to transform an industry and a country.

Christian entrepreneurs must choose to go beyond merely reaping the rewards of a global market in an ethical manner. They must go about the difficult, uncharted, and exciting work of shaping their pieces of the global market nearer the contours of the kingdom of God using every entrepreneurial gift God has given them.

James Tufenkian shaped his part. How will we shape ours?

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace.
—1 Peter 4:10

 

Dr. Matthew Kaemingk teaches theology, ethics, and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and is scholar-in-residence for Fuller's Max De Pree Center for Christian Leadership. Matthew's research focuses on public theology, religious pluralism, and faith, work, and vocation. Matthew holds doctoral degrees in Systematic Theology from the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and in Christian Ethics from Fuller Theological Seminary. His book Islamic Immigration and Christian Hospitality in an Age of Fear will be released by Eerdmans in late 2017.

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