Dear Low’s Church Family,
There have been many people throughout Christian history who deserve to be better known. One such person is Edna Ruth Miller Byler (1904—1976)*. Byler was known for the delicious doughnuts and cinnamon rolls she served as hostess for the Mennonite Central Committee headquarters in Akron, Pennsylvania, where her husband, Joe, served as a director of Civilian Public Service camps and in the distribution of material aid. But when she accompanied her husband on a service trip to Puerto Rico in 1946, Byler was inspired by the beautiful embroidery produced by women who were part of a needlework pro-ject led by fellow Mennonite workers. Byler discovered that despite their excellent products and their hard work they had no place to sell their handicrafts. Byler, a natural entrepreneur, took some of the needlework back with her and began to sell it out of the trunk of her car to attendees at church gatherings. Byler shared with the purchasers stories of the women who produced the items.
Sales expanded as Byler drove around the country representing the Overseas Needlework and Crafts Project. In 1958 she opened a store and expanded the product line to include craftwork from India and Jordan. Four years later the Mennonite Central Committee officially adopted the project, naming the retail effort SelfHelp. Eventually, as the product line grew and sales increased, the one retail outlet grew into the chain of stores and the online presence known as Ten Thousand Villages. Today Ten Thousand Villages connects 20,000 makers from 30 nations with buyers across the globe. On average producers get 21 cents for every $1 of product sold. When selling through traditional retail outlets producers generally net only 1-5 cents on the dollar. And the sellers are paid 50% before the product is sold, receiving the rest after the sale.
Byler was the mother of the modern fair trade movement, which traces its ancestry to the late nineteenth century when the Salvation Army in Australia founded a coffee company with the intention of paying the growers a fair price for their product. Today the fair trade movement is a worldwide effort driven not only by faithful Christians but also by others who want to see poor but industrious skilled and gifted people better themselves through their crafts and crops.
Byler is almost unknown today, but this unassuming but faithful Christian woman began a move-ment that has improved the lives of thousands—perhaps millions--of people globally. Byler teaches us that Christians can make a difference in the world without being public figures—fluent speakers or preachers, great writers, or talented vocalist and musicians. Byler served quietly but effectively by advocating for the Mennonite women of Puerto Rico, and by taking direct action by selling their needlework out of her automobile to her fellow Christians who admired excellent craftsmanship and wanted to help their sisters across the sea. Byler didn’t set out to change the world, but step-by-step God used her faithful actions to transform the lives of Christians and non-Christians alike who wished to improve their lives.
This Lent we can, like Byler, look for small ways to serve others in Jesus’ name. Who knows what our small efforts may accomplish? God may grow them into a mighty movement. But even if our efforts help only one person, that will be one who is served in Jesus’ name, someone who might not otherwise have experience the love of Christ.
Let all that you do be done in love. 1 Corinthians 16:14
God loves you and I do too, Pastor John Mark