A story of compassion with: Ryan Carlson & SkyBlue, part 2

When I was younger, I used to think the only way to “do missions” was by becoming a missionary. My definition of “missionary” was narrow, working from the idea that missionaries went to other countries to do dramatic life-changing intercessions or start churches. If I was passionate about evangelism, I couldn’t consider any other work role than as a missionary overseas.

Since then, my dad has taught me that what I do for work doesn’t have to be my passion. For him, he isn’t passionate about his work per se, but he is passionate about his people. By shifting where he places his focus, his practical missions focus happens on a daily basis, in the way he relates, intercedes, or champions his workers. The workplace, I realize now, is as much a mission field as any foreign country.

For Ryan Carlson, his workplace is in the pool world, working as owner of SkyBlue. Like my dad, he uses his work in order to advance the greater work of the Kingdom. In the first part of this SkyBlue mini-series, I explored how Ryan’s work history gives him a more grounded view of work. Here, I explore how Ryan’s work, life experiences, and faith culminate in work that can “get sticky” in a beautiful way…

The longer we talked in our interview, the more it became vividly apparent that Ryan not only cares deeply about his workers, he knows a lot about their economic hardships. This knowledge informs how he is better able to care for his people. When I asked him if he researched low-income stats or systems, he explains:

“My own research is we lost our home in 2008…We were [ ] going thousands and thousands of dollars behind every month…and we didn’t have any health care.

And so we went to the county office—this was not in Santa Clara, this was up in the Sierra foothills—and I was submitting all of our paperwork to the county office so that we could potentially be put on Medicaid…and as we’re sitting there in the lobby, with a lot of other people that were sitting there in the lobby, [I was struck by] the amount of time it consumed just to apply and get assistance.

I remember sitting there going, This is almost a full time job, just to get the assistance, when all these people, including me, should be trying to figure out ways to go get… an income. And that was just for that… one assistance.”

Through his experience, Ryan recounts how “there’s all kinds of different ways the county and the state will help people that are in lower income, and it helped me realize all the hoops that people have to jump through just to try to make it…And then you pile on Silicon Valley and the cost of living that is so high here…”

He continues: “We have employees where English is not their first language; I have multiple single fathers…so you know, if they have their ex-wife helping watch the kids…and they’re not in a great neighborhood, and their car gets broken into/damaged so they can’t get to work; there’s all these things that a lot of these people are dealing with on any given day, that if you live in a nicer neighborhood, you live in a kinda decent community—you don’t even have to deal with. So it’s not even just that they’re trying to make money at a job, they’re in an environment that’s constantly going against them.”

From this first-hand experience and his employee’s experiences comes the root of SkyBlue’s orientation as a workplace. Ryan says, “One of the goals at our business is:  I’m always trying to figure out ways that we can bless our employees…

Whatever we can do to try and bless them, whether it’s help[ing] out with [their] kids’ education, [or] giving them gift cards for lunches so that when they’re out and about it’s one less thing they have to spend money on. I’ll lend them my trucks when they need to move; [basically] trying to figure out creative ways that [don’t] necessarily—especially for the ones receiving [government] assistance—hurt the assistance aspect for it, but helps them out in some way.

In fact, I’ve had employees ask me not to pay them bonuses… they’ll ask me to hold off paying them because they’ve hit a certain threshold—and we’re only talking another couple thousand dollars over the threshold, so it’s not gonna like be an amazing change for them— but they’ll lose so much [more] if they get paid just two more thousand dollars than what they get paid.”

We finish by talking about Silicon Valley, Grace, and getting sticky. He remarks, “Silicon Valley presents itself as everybody’s got it together, riding the wave of Silicon Valley and how great it is, and it’s hard not to get caught up in it. I mean, most of our clients and customers have [ ] ridden the wave—[and] it’s a big wave. And they live in nice neighborhoods, and [have] nice pools, and nice cars… so it’s easy to get distracted about what life is about.

Pastor Bob gave a sermon a number of years ago, and it was basically ‘get sticky,’ and hiring people that have got a little bit more drama, they’ve got problems, they’ve got issues —whether it’s like trying to figure out a way for them to get home early so they can go watch their kids’ assembly [or what not], to me it’s a beautiful way to try to be a part of the community in some way, shape, or form.”

To Grace specifically, he says, “Grace Church is interesting because it [seems] predominately white, Asian, [with] more affluent professional[s]. I remember early on going to Grace and kinda feeling intimidated, being a small business owner, being a pool guy, and granted our business does awesome and I’m blessed. But it’s interesting because I feel like I straddle the fence a little bit between blue collar [and white]. I relate to the blue collar guy, I can go out and fix a pump, a heater, get my hands dirty, and then the next minute I can enjoy hanging out with some people that are very successful in the tech world, even if I don’t know what the heck they’re talking about most of the time.

So Grace doesn’t—it’s not that we purposefully haven’t done it this way, but we’ve kinda built a community that is very professional oriented. And every once in a while, we get people that aren’t in that sphere, it’s a beautiful thing to see, it’s a beautiful thing for us to care and reach out and not only that but most importantly, I think, to learn.

Whether you think of like when we had [those two families with diverse backgrounds] coming to us, and I remember somebody saying, “Oh man, we can really bless them,” and somebody else saying, “Actually, I think they’re the ones that are going to bless us.” And they’re going to help us see a part of Jesus that we don’t even know. There’s something about being dependent—the goal is not that we are one paycheck away from losing a car, or losing a house—but there’s something beautiful about that dependency. Because when we have a lot of stuff, we kinda can get a little soft, a little complacent, a little ‘I’m doing good cause I did it.’

But when you’re in that realm where you are struggling just to make ends meet, you’re usually hitting your knees a little bit more praying to God about things than when you feel like you got it all figured out. People that are struggling to make ends meet, sometimes they have… a stronger faith, and more reliance upon God in their lives than when we have it all.”

Ryan Carlson, SkyBlue, and his personal stories is a testament to God’s faith in working in and among the poor. As Ryan recalls, getting sticky is a way of living out our calling to pursue justice by loving our neighbor.

Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. —James 2:15-16

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