The year was 2017, and I was walking through some part of Los Angeles called Echo Park just as the sun was setting. To my right there were couples and families and homeless people milling around what I would later learn was Echo Park Lake. It was an interesting sight to witness the chipper amongst the homeless, but I suppose that is Los Angeles in a nutshell- so many bodies, and different types of bodies at that, all sprawled out across a gorgeous geographic landscape.
I didn’t linger with the picnickers to take in the scene, because I was running late. The weekend-long orientation for the apprenticeship I was invited to participate in was already starting by the time I had finally found my way to Echo Park. Just a few months prior I’d been accepted into a program called ‘1001 New Worshiping Communities Apprenticeship’ hosted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and an organization called Cyclical LA. I didn’t know much about either organization, but I was excited to participate in the unconventional program they were inviting me into.
Earlier that year I had moved from New York City to California to attend Fuller Seminary. Up until my introduction to Echo Park, I hadn’t spent much time outside of Pasadena (home to Fuller), and I was excited to venture beyond my normal weekly route. I was hoping to meet some new friends, or at the very least, to network with a group of people also interested in church planting. When I’d first heard about the apprenticeship I was intrigued that Cyclical LA wasn’t bound to the normal language typically associated with church planting. They were interested in supporting non-traditional communities, but still for the sake of spreading the Gospel. Amazing. Rather than calling these groups “churches”, they refer to them as “new worshiping communities”.
Hearing the phrase, “new worshiping community” seemed to promise some form of hope I hadn’t realized could actually exist.
Once I learned this redemptive and emancipating language, I suddenly felt confident that there could be a place for all of the pieces I had been trying to carefully separate and keep apart. There was the art piece, the spiritual formation piece, the entrepreneurial piece, and the justice piece. At times I could combine two or three, but even then I found it challenging to find models that embodied the successful integration of any of these topics. Each requires a world of study and a great deal of attention on its own. So, how could they ever come together? I had briefly considered starting a church, but that didn’t seem to be the exact nudge I was feeling. And even with a strong artistic practice, I knew I’d never feel fully satisfied only pursuing art. However, the thought of creating a new worshiping community felt expansive, like a field of possibilities had suddenly opened up for me.
As I started to take seriously the idea of making Dea Studios official, I wrestled with the structure of the organization for a long time. Should we be a nonprofit? Could I still operate pastoraly with a for-profit business? As I researched business models, the organizations that inspired me were social purpose corporations. Social purpose corporations combine social needs and for-profit goals. However, I knew that I wanted full freedom to pursue social needs, for-profit objectives, and spiritual goals. So, after consulting with a few professionals, I ultimately chose to form Dea Studios as an LLC in August of 2020.
Now, Dea Studios is a creative agency dedicated to serving faith-based communities. That means that we offer a variety of art and design services, such as creative resources, graphic design, worship service planning, etc. for faith organizations, churches, seminaries, and small groups. However, even though Dea Studios is a for-profit company, I find that I tend to plan and strategize as if the business were a non-profit organization. Why is this? Simply because I care about people, and I want the organization to be a place where people can experience healing and inspiration. My heart is pastoral. So, why didn’t I just choose to create a non-profit organization? The answer comes down to one word - ownership.
Living in 2020 as a Black American woman I feel that it is important to have ownership. For me, it is about representation and reclaiming at least a small part of my familial inheritance. I’ll explain. According to USA Facts, “[...] the 2018 Annual Business Survey (ABS), found that Black or African Americans owned 124,004 employer businesses (firms with at least one paid employee) in 2017. This accounted for 2.2% of the 5.7 million employer businesses in the United States.” 2.2% seems rather low to me, especially considering that business ownership is a prime way for people to acquire stability and power.
By power I am referring to freedom and free ability - financial freedom and the freedom to direct one’s time, and the freedom to exercise one’s ability without limitations. I am not referring to power that is wielded solely for personal gain, but to the kind of power that can liberate an entire community. Ownership is key to this type of liberation.
So, herein lies my current struggle. As I, alongside an incredibly talented and savvy team, continue to develop Dea Studios into a sustainable for-profit business, I am also wondering how we might be a force of love and care and hospitality as well. What has helped tremendously as we wrestle through clearly articulating our identity and purpose as an organization has been wrestling with our questions in the community that I found that evening in 2017.
Cyclical LA is an extraordinary organization that builds communities and people. Its founder, Nick Warnes, has been a great source of inspiration for me as I step into my role as CEO of Dea Studios. What does it mean to be a leader in 2020? What does it mean to have the heart of a worshiper and the drive of an entrepreneur? How can so many seemingly incompatible pieces fit together? Nick Warnes does an amazing job of demonstrating what entrepreneurial, community-oriented leadership can look like, and he does it all with a pastoral heart. I’m doing my best to find my own mix and flow of these qualities.
After completing the ten-week apprenticeship in 2017, I took a long hiatus from thinking about starting a business to focus on seminary. However, once I graduated from Fuller in 2019, I wasn’t surprised to find that the entrepreneurial call was still beckoning. And I knew right where to turn. I’m much more immersed in the Cyclical community now than I was in 2017, and I am certainly the better for it. They have helped me to realize that I don’t have to silo my interests in spiritual formation and business, and that there can be a blend of the two. Of course, this takes some figuring out, but as our team navigates the complexities and overlaps, it has been encouraging to know that there are like-minded people working through similar questions.
If you are considering starting a church or a faith-oriented business (or a business that’s founded on faith principals), check out Cyclical LA and the 1001 New Worshiping Communities program. You may be surprised to discover that there is more room to be who you fully are than you originally imagined.
 USAFacts. (2020, September 23). A look at Black-owned businesses: A higher share of Black-owned businesses are women-owned than non-Black businesses. Retrieved November 09, 2020, from https://usafacts.org/articles/black-women-business-month/