WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you will be listening in on my conversation with a couple who believes that small town America is on the verge of what they call not revitalization, but redemptification. John and the Ashely Marsh are beginning that process in their own hometown of Opelika, Alabama.
If you type “death of small town America” into a search engine, you’ll get more than a half million hits. You’ll find stories about the death of rustbelt towns. Stories about the death of southern milltowns. Stories about the death of farming communities in the west, but this is not one of those stories. Opelika is a former textile mill village in Lee County, Alabama, not far from the Georgia line. And 20 years ago it might have fit comfortably into that death of the small town cliche. With the textile industry rapidly fleeing overseas, by the 1980s Opelika’s downtown was all but boarded up. But that was before John and Ashely Marsh got ahold of it. As you will hear, John and Ashely’s some marriage was in even worse shape than their town. John was an alcoholic and a workaholic. Ashely was on the verge of divorce, and John was on the verge of suicide, when they turn their lives over to Christ. Their relationship with Christ transformed their relationship to each other and to their neighbors. And that transformation has led to the transformation of a town. And that town is now a model for other small cities around the country. I had this conversation with John and Ashely Marsh in … where else? Opelika, Alabama.
John and Ashely Marsh, welcome to the program. We’re here in your offices in Opelika, Alabama, which is where all the magic has happened. And actually I’ll start with you. You’re from Opelika. Can you give us a sense of what Opelika, Alabama, was like when you were growing up here?
ASHELY MARSH, GUEST: It was amazing. I grew up in Pepperell Village, which is a mill village. Opelika actually had two different mills here. And my entire family were workers in the mill, so it was really nostalgic, very welcoming, inviting. People, took care of each other, loved each other. And downtown Opelika was the New York for me. I think I’ve said that one time before, but it really was, it was bigger than what I’d ever thought I’d ever get to see.
SMITH: Well, West Point, Georgia, which is right over the Chattahoochee River from where we are, and Opelika were huge mill towns. I mean you, you mentioned Pepperell Mills. West Point Pepperell was, I guess, the largest towel manufacturer in the world at one time. At least that’s what I read. Is that true?
ASHELY: Towels and sheets, you’re right.
SMITH: And so this was a big bustling town and yet you went away to college and you came back and not so much. Right?
ASHELY: I never went to college. I actually was ready to go to college, went and looked at some different areas and then met this wonderful man sitting next to me and fell head over heels and threw the towel in on all of it. Stayed here with him.
SMITH: So y’all never actually left Opelika, Alabama. Y’all stayed here the whole time, John?
JOHN MARSH, GUEST: Yeah, we stayed here the whole time. I’m not from Opelika. I’m from Albany, Georgia, which is about two hours south of here. But ended up here and met Ash. I was here at 19 years old or so and, and just fell in love with this whole area. It’s just an incredible place, you know, having Auburn University very close and that huge school. And then Opelika’s really people who build and make things and this textile and creation, you know, the first magnetic tapes in the country. Ampex was here, and Diversified Products that made DP, the workout equipment. A lot of things started in Opelika. And it was an industrial town that that built and made things.
SMITH: But about the time y’all got married, it was, It had seen better times though, right? I mean it that the mill town, the mills and mostly shut down. And when you all came here, you weren’t in the business then of restoring old buildings and restoring the town. I understand you got your start in the car business, is that right?
JOHN: Actually in the high end car audio business was what brought me here. And through a series of things, just following my giftings. You know, I’d never had a real job to speak of. I was always making things. And so that’s actually how I met Ash. So I’m working behind this stereo shop. My friend owns the stereo shop and kind of mentored me and then I had a little shop behind it. And this girl comes up in a car to see if she could get her speakers fixed, and wearing a tennis skirt and really cute ponytail and all this. And I go outside there and says, I need to see if you can get my speakers working. And when I looked inside there, I was like, well, you don’t have any speakers. And so that was my first time getting to see this lady.
SMITH: So you all, we’ll kind of fast forward through a lot of stuff. But y’all got married and view as having this entrepreneurial bent and this, this, this ability and giftedness towards making things and fixing things. You started digging in here in Opelika. And yet at some point I understand both your marriage and your business were not doing all that great. Is that fair to say?
JOHN: Yeah, I mean, it all went off course when, even at 13 years old, I know the point. I went and I did with a young girl who was 12 years old. We both stepped across lines we thought we could never come back from. And I sinned against what I knew, my parents and God and everything I knew and I started rebelling. And I never stopped rebelling until it hurt too bad and cost too much. So by the time I was here, I had tried drugs about 17 years old for the first time. And I was deep into that, and Ash didn’t know anything about that. But we get married, I’m working hard making money, but just living a life that’s hollow chasing meaning and purpose and money and in, you know, doing things and achieving things. And one of the things on the list was a good girl, check off the list and I got one. But within a short period of time, we were married, found out we were pregnant six months in and we were still having trouble. We were three days from divorce. I was a drug addict. We were in a lot of debt with the business we were in, the car business at the time. We were a million and a half dollars in debt. We were $99,000 overdrawn. And it drove me to the attic of my house to hang myself.
SMITH: So Ash, whenever that happened, whenever, you kind of found out that the man you married was not the man you thought he was, what was going through your mind?
ASHELY: Just desperation. I felt very alone and heartbroken, you know. I grew up in a home that and in environments that actually were, were hard sometimes. We didn’t grow up super wealthy. I grew up loved, very loud but not wealthy. And so sometimes whenever you’re around that type of environment, you do see those types of different struggles anyway. So I knew I wanted to get away from those things. And so whenever I realized that he was a drug addict, drug addict and an alcoholic, it was just heartbreaking. I think I felt if I can put my finger on it, just lost. Absolutely lost.
SMITH: But were you a Christian at that time? Did you have some sort of relationship with Christ growing up?
ASHELY: The greatest relationship I have with Jesus growing up was just going to church. And it was a safe and consistent place for me to be able to go to growing up. But I did not know Jesus. No.
SMITH: So a million plus dollars in debt. Overdrawn at the bank, nearly $100,000. A drug addict. An alcoholic. Your marriage is in shambles. Neither one of you know the Lord. You’re about to hang yourself in the attic of your house. What happened?
JOHN: Well, you know, I kept… I grew up in a Methodist church and didn’t know Jesus from Abraham Lincoln. Thought he was some old dude that lived a long time ago that wore sandals. And I thought church was about hot dogs and hot girls because that’s all I knew they were promoting. And I longed for something and I would feel something. I remember at a young age feeling drawn toward God, but it just didn’t connect. And so when I’m in the attic of that house and my mind just keeps going, kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself. This life you’re living is not worth it. This life you’re living is not worth it. Over and over and over and over. But then I heard something interesting, and it was die to yourself. And it was not of me. It was, it was a juxtaposition to what I was hearing. It sounded the same, but it was so different. And I just said, well, this life I’ve been living isn’t worth it. And if you would have someone like me, if you would love me, I’d give it all over to you and I’d never quit. I’d follow you all the days of my life and nothing would stop that. And like lightning instruct me. He poured his love out on me and change me. Absolutely touched me. Like every hair on my body stood up and I felt like a syringe. Something pushed from my feet to the top of my head as I cried on that old plywood floor. And it absolutely changed me.
SMITH: So Ash, when that happened, he comes to you and says, this alcoholic, drug addict, in debt husband comes to you and says, I’m changed, honey. What did you say?
ASHELY: You’re a liar. And absolutely no, there’s no way. He came out of the attic and was immediately wanting to convince me that he was a different person. And I just don’t… It’s like you’re a liar. You’ll always be a liar. You have always been a liar. I don’t want anything to do with you. And then later into that when we started reconciling, because God really did get ahold of him, in a massive and major way and literally delivered him of, of, of alcoholism and drug addiction and he literally was free from it. And he wanted me to reconcile and come home, come back to him. And so the struggles that I had to go through was I had actually separated from him to be with another gentleman. And further into trying to reconcile and everything, and I was still trying to, straddling that fence of figuring out whether or not he was being genuine or playing me, which is what, you know, the lawyers tell you. or if there really was a change. I found out that I was pregnant. So I ended up having a miscarriage. And that’s what brought me to the place of just breaking me. And when you get to the place that you see the ugliest version of yourself and you know that there’s nothing left in you that you can actually try to apply to even fix it or correct it or even polish it anymore, that is when I believe we get to the place that we’re desperate enough to cry out to God and he’s always there.
SMITH: So John, you cry out to God, both of you do and you’re reconciled to God. And, and great! Things are happily, go happily ever after, right?
JOHN: No. In fact, the real … it gets worse and I don’t know, the brochure says, you know, you get saved and then every water fountain has koolaid in it. But that was not my experience. I mean everything went wrong because now there’s a war inside of me. Before then I did evil and I liked it and it seemed right. But everything I used to do seemed all of a sudden wrong to me. And my heart was just, I mean, I so moved and so deeply touched that I started, I started doing radical things. Like, my partner would, he would go in the next day, he’s telling people things that weren’t true and I said, well, I can’t do that ever again. Well, I turned my business, my life, and everything upside down. And they’re like, what’s wrong with you? We were doing this yesterday and it was fine. And nothing was fine that used to be fine. And he touched me and began to love me and change me. And so it all started. And all the harvest of all the things I had planted started coming up. And we had tons of problems. I mean the, I woke up the next day and had all the same problems I had before, plus all the new ones that I was actually torn, that what I was doing was not or didn’t honor God and I needed to change.
SMITH: So what happened next? What was the, what was the change?
JOHN: Well, the first change was some folks took us to a church and we walked in the door and we started crying. We were fussing and we didn’t, we didn’t really love each other. And we’re still trying to find our way. But the pastor there sent me on a men’s retreat, to a thing called Promise Keepers, which I’d never heard about. And some local doctor paid for it because I was broke as could be. I couldn’t pay attention. And so they put me in the back of the bus and I’m riding with 200 men or 100 men on this trip in these different buses. I don’t know anybody and I’m hating it. You know, and so we get there and the first night it was in Atlanta and Tony Evans spoke on the book of Hosea. And I just filled the floor up with tears and was absolutely deeply moved. And I met this man, and he said, well, I want to tell you, come by our room after this and I want to tell you some things I believe God’s going to do in your life. Went by his room and there’s these two big football guys want to talk about Jesus. They come to the door and white T-shirts and whitey-tighties. And I thought, oh my Lord, this is scary. This doesn’t look like Jesus to me. And so they start talking to me and they start saying. And the guy tells me who ended up being one of my mentors and who really helped us. He had been married for 14 years and cheated on his wife the whole time. divorced her. Five years, God got a hold of him and he come home to his original wife. And for the last 15 years of his life he helped young couples reconcile. And he became that gift, him and his wife to teach us how to find one another again. And so that was transformative. To have, because, you know, we can’t give what we don’t live. And we comfort others with the same comfort we’ve been comforted with.
SMITH: So, Ash, with that, was that a defining moment for you as well in the relationship? Or were there other things, events, changes of mind and heart that happened to you during that time?
ASHELY: So that happened prior to me having the miscarriage, but he did ask me to come home from that event, which it was the first time I think I’ve ever agreed with him in years, in our — which — since we got married. I could not fathom just saying yes to him without asking him why, you know? And he called me from that trip and said, I want to ask you to do something and don’t want you to ask me why. I just want you to say yes, but don’t ask me why. And I said, okay. He said, will you come home and be my wife. And I said yes. And I hung up the phone and said, what did I just do? And I’m sure he hung up the phone and said, what just happened. But it was God. I just know God intervened. But that was pivotal to me because I got to see him change. And so even though there was a part of me that didn’t want to believe that he was truly changing because everyone that was in my corner was saying, there’s no way. He’s just doing the religious card. I was seeing not a religious card. I was seeing a man that was broken and genuine and wanted to love me and forgive me and wanted to serve God and to serve others. And it was just so different, radically different from what he was before.
SMITH: Ash, when all of this was happening, relative to your marriage, you guys were living kind of in squalor in your physical. Not only was your marriage a disaster, but your living condition was kind of a disaster as well. Can you talk about that and, and kind of how the rejuvenation or the resurrection of your marriage also kind of led to this passion for redemptifying buildings as well?
ASHELY: Absolutely. We lived in one of the oldest homes in the city of Opelika, one of the founders of Opelika. And beautiful old home, but you wouldn’t have known it. It had just been not loved for a long, long time. So yeah, we actually had such nasty floors that I could mop them all day long and empty the bucket all day long. It would just be black. It was just, you know, a century of just grime. Old wallpaper, peeling off the walls. I mean, rats in the cupboards. We lived in a neighborhood that just had a lot of crime going on in it. Prostitutes walking into the yard, you know, petitioning John. We had numerous things happening that made it not a place that you wouldn’t want to raise a family there.
SMITH: But y’all said something, I don’t remember which one of said it when we were talking about this earlier, that whenever God changed your heart, he also kind of opened your eyes to these terrible conditions. And and as, as you were being transformed in the inside, you found yourself wanting to see the outside, your external condition transformed as well. Is that kinda what got you all started in this journey that you’re on now?
JOHN: It kinda is. And Ash said it: scales fall off your eyes and you begin to see. And we began to see we lived in a 500 square foot apartment in the midst of a 7,000 square foot house that was totally unrenovated and horrible. We had no AC except a one bedroom had a big 220 window unit that would keep that one room cold. And we just said, you know, in our, some of our mentors at the time and people who were discipling us said, you need to go ahead and go through this project. So six and a half years, one paycheck at a time, we restored this house. And it was the middle of the hood. It wasn’t worth anything. And then it became worth everything in the sense. And this kind of what happened to us, you know, there’s beauty in broken things. And something that’s loved looks different. And it really was the key to get us in the real estate business. Because we really didn’t know anything about it. We got taken advantage of all the time. We saved our HVAC money up, took us forever to save it up. And then the HVAC guy went bankrupt and left with all our money and we had to save it up again. So that kinda got us in the work, doing the work ourself. And we’d do one bathroom three times before we got it right enough to be decent. And it got us going. And then when we finished that house, and I was still doing cars, I said, Ash, that was awesome. She said, she said, well, what do you want to do? I said, do another one. And so that got us started. And then that neighborhood, we probably did over 70 houses of the 190 houses and buildings we’ve done in our city now in these 10 blocks. It all started with getting our own home in order. And it is such a Biblical thing, right? Get your money in order, get your house in order, get, get these things in order. Don’t be exporting things that you hadn’t imported. And it was, it was a key part to our getting into the real estate and development and restoration business.
SMITH: Well, I want to talk more now, I want to pivot in our conversation. We could have talked more about what you’ve done here in Opelika, but, but it takes more than just building buildings, right? It takes more than just the bricks and the sticks. Right? I mean there’s a, there’s a, an element of beauty and hospitality, Ashely, that I know that you have thought about a lot about and care a lot about. Can you say what that aspect of life, I guess you could say, brings to the real estate aspect of it?
ASHELY: I believe it shows hope, and hope is a very visible thing. I know we want to use that word and almost like it’s such an unseen understanding. But you can tell when someone has hope in their life, you can see it in their eyes. And you can see when they have no hope. And beauty actually surrounds people love in a way that they can gain that hope because they know they’re being loved. And God never left anything unloved. All the, all the, the time that he spent to be so particular, how he created his creation to how he created us obviously. And then how he gives us this, just the ability to pull together beautiful things. So to me is thinking about others before they get there. That’s what I tell John. It’s almost like, I thought about you before you got here. And what I mean about that is that I’ve prayed about you. I’ve been very intentional about what would touch you and what would mean something to you individually. And we try to do that with all of our real estate properties and we try to make friends with our realty, real estate tenants. And not just another landlord situation.
SMITH: Well John, you renovated that first house, the one that you were living in. And you wanted to do another one, and you did. And you’ve already alluded to the fact that you’ve done scores more, I think you said seven…
JOHN: About 71 in that neighborhood and 190 or so houses and buildings in these 10 blocks, we’ve restored.
SMITH: Well and one of the fruits of all of that effort has been that Opelika, Alabama’s now widely considered to be one of the great emerging sort of small cities in the United States. It’s made a lot of top places to live lists and it’s getting just a lot of publicity now. It’s easy to look back on that, but I mean that was a 20 plus year process for you guys. And I guess I’d like to ask, you know, what was a turning point for you? I’ve heard you say, for example, that there was one particular grand opening downtown that, that made a big difference to you. Can you talk about that?
JOHN: Yeah. And one thing to know we didn’t, we’ve never had any outside investment into the real estate. Ash and I never had any money. We kept doing it little by little, slowly by slowly. So the people that say it’s all about, you know, it takes money. That’s not the truth. It takes miracles. And we prayed, God give us front row seats to miracles. We won’t 50 yard line seats. Now it doesn’t have to be our miracle, but we want 50 yard line seats. And so what we prayed for our city and it’s loving a city and loving a place. I’ve heard the term called to topofelia and that’s love of place. And so God puts in some people and we see this more and more today that they can love a place. Well, loving Opelika for us, we knew that one of the places we could start, we kind of made a decision. Do you start with a lot of great residential houses who want great shops and restaurants, or do you start with great shops and restaurants and then lot of people would want to live by it. Well, we kind of was coming from both ends, but the key of the bill, the business, that really took it over the top is, Ash and I bought a corner building downtown Opelika, and we did a deal with some folks that turned it into the Irish Bread Pub, which was the first restaurant venue in downtown. And it really was. I remember the night it was opening for the first time ever we saw downtown packed. And this, this business became an incredible success. It was the catalyst that took Opelika to the next level because it took something from a possibility to a probability. And it really. And that’s one thing we know so much meaningful happens at the table. You decide who to marry and where to bury. I can get somebody to drive to the worst part of town for good barbecue. So food matters. And so Ash’s hospitality and us working that into the cities we work in now, plus our own, we believe food and experiences are crucial in saving cities.
SMITH: So Ashely, when that happened and you started, I mean, this is your hometown, right? I mean, there must have been especially meaningful for you.
ASHELY: Oh, it’s absolutely exciting because it was like how I remembered it. When I used to go downtown with my grandmother to go Easter dress shopping, it was busy. It was packed. And, but now to see it, it has like all of this, all the young people down there and they just want to be around and it’s just got a vibe to it. And it’s wonderful. Everybody has energy and it’s exciting. But yeah, it was, it was great. We stood on the balcony of Irish Bread Pub and as far as you could see, to the left or the right, which it made me think of what God says as far as the East is from the West, you know, and I know he talks about different things with that, and it’s like as far as we could see, we could see cars. You know, and it’s like this is insane. Look at what’s happening. And what we saw is that everybody wants to be a part of life. They just want to be a part of life.
SMITH: So John, that was kind of a defining moment for you. At some point it became not just you and Ashely doing things together, but y’all started hiring people. Y’all started, I mean there were folks that probably wouldn’t be able to get a job anywhere else that were working for you on some of these projects. Is that accurate?
JOHN: Yeah. We almost turned into, you know, people said, was it for profit or nonprofit? And I said it’s for purpose. It was a discipleship program of people in so many ways, from work release to drug addicts to crazy people. We were loaded down with them. They come out of the woodwork for us. And what we would say is, we’ve got this guy who’s, who’s life has been set free, who God set free. Guy who hasn’t, you’re with him for two years. When he goes to bathroom, you sit outside the porto-toilet. When he goes to lunch, you’re going with him. You’re with him. And life is more caught than taught. And so we would use that that way. And we were building buildings and saving structures but, but also seeing people saved. And so it was just, it was, it was synergistic to that. And people started coming from all over to work with us and to, and to join this journey of a cause that was bigger than any one of us.
SMITH: Well, I want to get to that in just a minute and we’ll, we’ll transition there. But before we leave that in, I guess I want to kind of learn some of the lessons that you’ve learned here in Opelika. It sounds like that it’s not just bricks and sticks, it’s also hospitality thinking about people before they arrive, but it’s about providing work and the dignity that comes with that for people that might not have been able to find that here. Were it not for these other projects, is that a fair way to say it?
JOHN: Very true. And you know as say, the greenest house of all is one that’s already built. And you know, what we’re seeing is that downtowns are becoming a new asset class of real estate. This irreplaceable real estate, and people would flock to that. And some of the things we’ve learned is, first Ash and I renovated all these buildings, put it out there and fixed them up. We said, man, if they were nice, people would come. And nobody came. So we’re sitting there making payments and drinking maalox and we’re upset. We got to do something. So renovation is not the key. It’s a key, but it’s not restoration totally. You’ve got to put businesses in there. So the next thing we had to learn is that it took special skills and the right team to save a city.
SMITH: John, as I was preparing for this conversation that we’re having, I heard you tell a story and I’m going to give you a star because I know I’m not going to get it right and let you finish it here, but it’s about, I think it was Steve Garber going to see Wendell Berry with a group of executives. Would you, would you tell that story and what that story means to you?
JOHN: And Steve Garber’s added tremendous value. His book, Visions of Vocation, rolled the shame back.
SMITH: Oh, hold on. What? What do you mean by that? I hate to interrupt the story, but what do you mean rolled the shame back? What do you mean by that?
JOHN: I felt such shame by being good at doing work and making money. And I felt like the church just kept saying, listen, if you’ll go make that unholy money and bring it in here and give it to us, we’ll make it holy for you. And I thought, well, the work I’m doing seems holy to me. And he just took the shame away from work that I could plumb to the glory of God. Or, or be a builder or a baker or a candlestick maker, and it all mattered to God. And it was in as much service as being a pastor or a missionary. And I had never felt that shame removed until he helped me see that. And it’s been, it’s released me into the work that I’m doing and and, and it’s made me feel like the work I’m doing matters to God.
SMITH: Well, so, okay. So Steve Garber did that. He also gave you another story about Wendell Berry, who’s one of my favorites. I’m a big Wendell Berry fan, so I can’t resist getting you to tell this story.
JOHN: So he said he was talking to the guys. He’s on the board of M&M Mars and he said he was talking to them. He said, I’d love to have you go to Wendell Berry’s farm. And so he took them out there and they had some adventure getting out there. And when he got there, they talked to Mr. Wendell about what, about their business. And he said, well, what is your plan? Do you want to make money for the next year or two years? And they said, oh no, we want to, we want to do good and do, we’ll, we’ll make money and to do good for our community for the next hundred years. He said, well, it’s a big difference. You’ve got to ask yourself different questions if you’re trying to make 100 year difference than if you’re trying to make a one or two year difference. And it just alluded to the idea that the quality of our questions really opens up the quality of the decisions we make. And it impacted us about cities.
SMITH: Well, I guess Ashely, that would particularly resonate with you because you’ve been here your whole life. The idea of making a difference for 50 years or 100 years was not an abstraction for you because you knew the history of this town and you had lived at least some portion of the history of this town.
ASHELY: That’s correct. I absolutely just anticipated the fact that we could do something that would impact our children, our children’s children, their children, and that one day someone would look back and say, thank goodness there were those rogue people that people were saying couldn’t do it. Just kept doing it.
SMITH: Well, back to, John, something you said just a little bit ago that if you’re trying to make a difference for a hundred years, you ask different questions than if you’re trying to just do something that makes a difference in the profit picture this year or next year. What are some of those questions? What do you have to look at differently if you’re trying to make that generational difference?
JOHN: You know, you have to back up far enough to think about it and in one example when we’re restoring a house and we say, what could we do in service of our city that would last 50 years and no one could undo it? It’s a pretty high standard to think like that. Wes Perry taught us that. And what I said is, okay, here’s what we have to do when restoring houses. We got to have great roofs. We’ve got to have good foundations. We’ve got to have excellent wiring and plumbing. We may not have the best kitchens and baths. Somebody can come back and do that later, but not many people can pull off these others. So we’re restoring things, we’re thinking long term. How can this house and this, this human capital and amazing vision and all it took to be there, how can we ensure that it has the best chance of lasting 50 to 100 years? So it’s even in the allotment of how we restore, we think about the restoration differently because we’re not just trying to put lipstick on a pig. We’re trying to save cities. And the best thing we can do for our city is save existing structures. It’s better for our tax base. It’s better for our economy. It makes your Sunday school teacher happy and your economics teacher happy.
SMITH: So John and Ashely, you’ve done this in Opelika. I mean, you’re still doing it in Opelika. It’s not like you’ve abandoned Opelika, Alabama, by any stretch of the imagination. But I’m also very aware that people have seen what you’re doing here, and they’re asking you what you’ve learned, how you did it. Can you come help us do it there. Can you say a little about that? Where else are you working? Some of it may be confidential, but to the extent that you’re at liberty to talk about it, where are you working and what are some of the lessons that you’ve learned that you can transfer?
JOHN: Well, we’re working in seven different cities around America. Mostly people who feel this same call that we did to save a city or that long to see their place saved. And some, it’s people who bought one project, a building downtown. And they long to see that saved so they can earn the right to do others. And some that have bought as much as 80 blocks of a downtown and spent, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars. So, but what we’ve learned is this, that what the knowledge we have, because I’ve been faithful to document it, is transferrable. There are models that make sense about where does the capital come from? How do you view these projects? What type of team you need and how do we, how do we model these things? So really what it is is conventional real estate development wisdom and then adding in some unique financial and hospitality design. Create a business with Christ-centered care. And it’s letting all those tensions wrestle for one another. So one thing we learned is like most people will think, well, if I can fix the buildings like this, then then the city or the main street or economic development’s going to bring in the tenants. Well, I’ve learned something. Cities are like wheelbarrows. Somebody’s got to push them. They just don’t go by themselves. And I also learned that there has to be financial models that make sense. And these don’t have to be benevolent type of investments. That’s one thing we’ve learned. Most people think, well, I’m going to have to fund this and it’ll never be sustainable. No, everything we build has sustainability as a core foundational principle. It should make sense, and it should make money because profit is like blood. You don’t live for blood, but try to live without the stuff.
SMITH: John, you’ve mentioned some of the other cities that you’re working in and I know some of those cities. I know for example, Stanford, Kentucky, and you’ve, Jess and Angela Correll are there and they’re just amazing people. You work with them, but I imagine you’ve learned from them as well. Are there other mentors in your life? What has been the role of mentorship both mentors for you and who you mentor in this whole redemptification process?
JOHN: It’s foundational. I mean, I can’t imagine it, from the time I got born again I’ve had people in my life mentoring me and taking in wisdom. I say, if you don’t watch it, you get spiritually constipated. You’re taking it in and not putting it out and you get sick. But they come alongside you and love you. And I had to learn first, how do you find a mentor? I mean, what does it look like? How do you know you found one? And I say when someone speaks to my heart, not my head, I start perking up. And it’s like I resonate like a tuning fork. I’m humming. They’re saying words that God is touching me with and when they do, I said I got to talk this person later. But what is mentoring in our life? I mean I hear it and people say, well, I have a cup of coffee once a month with a mentor. And that certainly mentoring. But we have a different take on some of that, and that’s a life-on-life covenant relationship. With my mentor that I have now for 26 years, it’s till death do us part. Whichever one goes home first will be when the when the deal’s over. And so it’s a love relationship where you share perspectives and in your understanding and experiences. But I also learned I needed coaching. So I didn’t know in the beginning that mentoring and coaching were different. And coaching matters, too. You don’t win SEC championships, Superbowls, or or or any major event without coaching. So I’ve learned that mentoring shares their experiences. For me, that’s how I see it. And they talk about those things and let you bounce ideas off of them. Coaching asks incredible questions and holds the tension of the space for those answers to come up in you. And so I’ve found that I needed both and found tons of value in both.
SMITH: So when you say tension of the space, that’s an expression that maybe some won’t be familiar with. Does that mean the space between where you are and where you want to be?
JOHN: It’s letting silence do the work, like I just did. Just stop and listen. They’ll ask you the question and then just let you sit with it. And hold that silence for you to think because to be listened to and to be heard is very unusual. And so in coaching and mentoring it’s been in different verticals. Like I have a mentor that financially mentors me, Jess Correll does that. And I’ve got spiritual mentors, and I’ve got mentors in different areas, health. And I say the five primary areas I’m looking for is faith, family, fun, fitness and finance.
SMITH: John, you used a word while ago, topofelia, the love of a place. And we’ve mentioned Wendell Berry, whose writing is all about being sort of rooted in place. The church though often doesn’t do a really great job of, of bringing these ideas out in their teachings. So can you say a little about that? Just just tell me what’s on your…. Whenever I mention all of this together in one paragraph or one sentence or one thought, what goes through your mind?
JOHN: Well, I just think about what opportunities are we leaving on the table as the church. And I mean, are we even good neighbors? A lot of churches are bad neighbors. I don’t want them as my neighbors. They’re going to park up three hours a week and then have an acre of asphalt all the other times and not let anybody else really use it or wan’t them to. And it’s really, the church can be better neighbors. I mean they have commercial kitchens. Can’t they help someone start their first restaurant in them? I mean even a local church here, they have a large congregation, 5,000 people. And I told them, you know, when your church is out, all your people drove here in car so they feel compelled to jump back in their cars and leave here. And it doesn’t help our restaurants at all. In fact, we see you as as a detriment instead of a blessing. And he was like, I didn’t know. Well that’s the question, should be. I mean, should they care about the buildings and these huge resources they steward and how they interface with the community? And their buildings make a difference. I mean, we don’t just make structures, structures make us. And so I would just say, can we have a new awareness that they have resources? I mean single moms, they’re one of the biggest things that are need often is a car repair of a single mom. Well, a lot of them have a garage. They fixed their van in and hadn’t got anybody out there fixing single moms’ cars. I’m just saying there’s so many opportunities. And as, as we’re getting long on real estate and short on congregation, we need to start thinking about often how can we make a difference in the community? And there’s real estate developers sitting in your pews. And, and, and also landlords and they feel these aren’t predatory people. These are people that put risk out there to make their community better. And there’s a lot of things you could do to serve them well.
SMITH: You know, John, I’m going to end our conversation today with something that I, maybe I should’ve begun here this way. Or I know a lot of the conversations that I’ve heard that you guys have been in you have started this way. That is all of this kind of culminates, all of what we’ve talked about, sort of culminates in this idea that you have coined as redemptification. Can you talk about that word, what it means to you, and what it means? Where it came from?
JOHN: Well, we just, I believe it was, you know, divinely inspired in some way. I mean, I’d never heard it before it dropped into me. And it was foreign for me when I heard it. But it’s just the idea that, that, that it gentrification really spawned because people kept going, gentrification, gentrification, pushing our poor people so we can put in yuppies and this thing. And I said, we’ve never been about that. I said, we’re about redeeming those things to … People and places to their intended beauty or glory. And so that’s the definition for us of redemptification. That people and places have intended beauty or glory that have sometimes being covered up, forgotten, and unloved. And love is a difference-maker. It’s the most expensive four letter word in the world, to love something. And to love of city means you got to care for it. And care about it and think about it and it’s just, it’s just a whole different game. So that’s what … Redemptification is our new podcast, and it’s all around this idea of what would it look like to explore bringing things to their intended beauty and glory. And giving God a place in restoring places and people.