If you had asked 22-year-old Grace Bateman, fresh out of Mississippi College, what she thought she’d be doing in 2010, chances are she’d have told you, “I’ll be a missionary.”
Six years later, she certainly is proclaiming the gospel around the world, but instead of leading Bible studies or building houses, she attends national trade shows displaying cards and paper products handmade by an industrious group of women in Peru. Bateman, now 28, is a member of First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Miss., and the founder and manager of Peru Paper Company. She marvels at the path God has led her down.
“It has grown my faith exponentially,” she says. “If you would have told me five years ago when we started this that … God would use this as an opportunity for me to speak the gospel and speak on behalf of the poor into a secular business community, I don’t think I would have believed you.”
The Beginning of Peru Paper
In 2005, Bateman took a yearlong position with Peru Mission in Trujillo, the country’s third largest city.
“I was in Peru for a year after college primarily teaching English,” she says. “I met a British missionary who was doing a craft project, and I thought, ‘the ladies in our church–they’re very artistic, maybe they’d like to make something like this.’”
Bateman bought a few materials to get started, and she and some of her Peruvian friends from the church designed about 100 cards.
“A short-term missions team came down and looked at them and bought every single one,” Bateman says. “The ladies got so excited.”
Later, when Bateman returned to the States, she brought a stack of cards, which she then sold to churches, friends and family. The response was incredible.
“The [women] really were encouraged by the positive feedback and that people wanted to buy everything,” she says.
It was then Bateman realized this was more than a hobby. She saw the economic impact it could have on the the lives of the women she had grown to love—pulling them out of poverty and giving them the resources to care for their families. She also recognized that she would need more training to better guide the Trujillo women in their business venture.
Bateman returned to the States for training at the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College, and earned a master’s degree from Southern New Hampshire University. Afterwards, she returned to Peru.
“Little by little the women kept making [cards],” she said. Bateman sensed, then, that she needed to quit doing this as a hobby.
Bateman dove in. She formed an LLC, launched a website, and started talking with business consultants both in Peru and in the U.S. Bateman also recruited a Peruvian manager to oversee production, staffing, shipping, and payment in Peru.
“It seems like an unlikely group to grow a business out of,” she says. “I’ve learned … God will use unlikely people and things and circumstances to accomplish His will, build his kingdom and spread the gospel in amazing ways.”
From Poverty to Artisans
What started as four women making crafts has grown to a company employing 16 Peruvian women. Peru Paper Company’s success has given its workers a way to provide for their families safely and with dignity. The women work together to hand-make paper from recycled materials, create designs, and complete card orders. Bateman then buys the merchandise directly from the women, who are paid immediately for their work.
“All purchases help grow the business and allow us to change lives as we train and employ more Peruvian women,” she says.
Azucena, one of the company’s original artisans, used to sell candy and snacks by the roadside. Because she couldn’t afford childcare, her children accompanied her and played near the dangerous intersection while she worked. Now a manager with Peru Paper Company, Azucena provides for her family’s financial needs and keeps her children safe by working from home.
Deysi, who started work with Peru Paper Company in 2008, has also been touched in very tangible ways by the company. She saved her card-making income and was able not only to cover education expenses for her children, but also to cover her dirt kitchen floor with tile.
Monica, who also joined the company in 2008, has quickly risen through the ranks to become one of the chief card designers. She is now nurturning an artistic gift she didn’t know she had.
“Monica was telling me, ‘I’ve found what God has called me to do: it’s to bless other people through my art work and through these designs,’” says Bateman. “The women’s attitudes [are] changing–their confidence is growing. They’re wanting to make a difference in their community–they’re even wanting to give back and serve.”
Though many of the women are earning a living wage for the first time, their greatest joy remains being able to use the resources they now have to be a blessing to others.
Since putting in her kitchen floor, Deysi has hosted church events and the Peru Paper Company Christmas party. Monica, too, relishes in giving back. “I glorify Jesus through helping others,” says Monica, “for example, by giving my offering to the church as well as food for the poor in the church. I can also help needy families in the community and help others in their home businesses, teaching them to be productive and take care of their families.”
Spreading the Gospel Through Stationery
As the business continues to grow, the employee’s lives and work are a witness to the unchurched women in the community.
“Sometimes there’s a woman who is very qualified [to work] who might not be a believer,” says Bateman. “The other women see it as an opportunity to minister to her, invite her to the Bible studies, get to know her, reach out to her.”
Bateman, too, has had opportunities to bear witness to the work God is doing in Peru. As she travels the country to various trade shows, she inevitably gets questions about Peru Paper Company. As she gives glory to God, those with whom she comes in contact—like vendors, photographers and retailers—often walk away inspired.
“It gives an opportunity to really share the gospel,” she says. “When faith turns into action like this, it’s very difficult for them to question it. Feeding the hungry and empowering the powerless are very hard to speak against.”
Growing Peru Paper Company
Peru Paper Company has quadrupled in size since that first craft project at Peru Mission; online sales continue to be strong and the cards can be found in 35 retailers around the globe.
Bateman’s ultimate goal is to grow the business in order to hire more Peruvian women, but she also has her eye on Stateside growth.
“I would love to follow what we’ve done in Peru, employing mothers and/or women from disadvantaged backgrounds or with few other employment opportunities to be a blessing and encouragement to them,” she says.
Through it all, the missionary from Jackson, Miss., still stands in awe of what God can accomplish through His willing servants.
“Just to see how God has taken someone like me, who is basically a missionary at heart … I never would have dreamed I’d be in this position,” says Bateman, who takes her job description from Proverbs 31:8-9. “Those verses say, ‘Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.’ I see my part in Peru Paper Company to speak on behalf of these women who otherwise cannot speak for themselves. I feel I must be faithful to tell their story and speak on their behalf to a world that would otherwise not know who they are or what they are capable of.”
Freelance writer Sarah Asp Olson makes her home in Central Indiana, where she writes lifestyle and special interest articles.