As missionaries Al and Diane Mellinger help Christians in the Balkans establish livelihood groups to support their families, they face the challenge of finding opportunities to sell the products the groups create.
The Mellingers have a goal of every Free Methodist church in the Balkan region of southeastern Europe having a livelihood group or micro-business that allows members to support themselves and sustain their church through tithing. When the Mellingers return to the United States and speak at churches, people are eager to buy the products, “but that’s not enough to have any kind of sustainable income for these people,” Al said in a phone interview with LIGHT + LIFE while traveling last month to Toddville, Iowa, for a meal and a fashion show featuring items produced by the livelihood groups. “One of the things that I want to do is to try to figure out more creative ways to market the products that we have in order to be able to help more people.”
The fashion show was one of the last U.S. events for the Mellingers before they returned to Bulgaria, but they now have a way to help livelihood groups in the Balkans (and around the world) even when they’re not traveling. A year ago, the Mellingers opened Marketplace Manna, which they thought would be a temporary shop for the Christmas season at a mall in Jackson, Michigan. The couple tried to obtain a mall kiosk, but the mall staff replied, “Well, would you like a storefront?”
“They ended up giving us a storefront at a cheaper price than a kiosk would have cost because of the holiday time, and they didn’t want the store sitting empty,” Al said. “The day we actually opened our store last November , we ended up finding the mall had sold to a new owner.”
The mall’s new owner offered a similar price, which Al said is “very cheap for retail space today,” for the store to remain open year-round. The couple’s son, Casey Mellinger, left another job to manage Marketplace Manna. The store operates with help from volunteers, but Al said two part-time employees work alongside Casey because of legal restrictions on volunteers handling cash.
The opportunity for a larger store posed a new challenge, because the Mellingers were not sure they had enough merchandise for the space.
“We had a lot of knitwear, but we went from 30 square feet for a kiosk to 1,400,” Al said. “That’s when I started talking to groups I’ve worked with or talked to like SEED, Heavenly Treasures, Roots-n-Streams out of Greenville (Illinois), and a bunch of others.”
After beginning with some products on consignment, Marketplace Manna switched to selling the other organizations’ products wholesale. The store now distributes products for 19 partnering organizations.
“Approximately 70 percent of the merchandise we have in the shop comes from Free Methodist connections around the world,” said Al, who added that the person who made each product has already been paid a fair wage. “The way it helps people is that it allows them to keep working because we pay them to make what we sell, but we pay them upfront so they don’t have to wait to get compensated.”
Marketplace Manna has an informational website at marketplacemanna.biz while another site at marketplacemanna.com allows people to buy products online. Most sales still happen in the mall or at events such as a table display of Marketplace Manna products that Brooke Hills Free Methodist Church hosted at a West Virginia craft fair on the same day as LIGHT + LIFE’s interview with Al. Brooke Hills also is the first church to sell Marketplace Manna products in its church building with Spring Arbor (Michigan) FMC becoming the second Marketplace Manna Express church.
Al believes most shoppers stay on the major online retail websites such as Amazon and are not as likely to buy online from other sites. As a result, Marketplace Manna includes a focus on in-person sales at events such as women’s retreats.
Sales are important to help families stay together and have enough money for their expenses.
“The government of Bulgaria says that if a family makes $380 a month, they’re not living in poverty, but the average gallon of gas costs more than $5,” Al said. “Also 25 percent of Bulgarians on the planet do not live in Bulgaria. It’s mostly the 25- to 55-year-olds working-age people who go somewhere else in the world to find a job to send the money home, which means mom or dad — or sometimes both mom and dad — are not raising their kids. Grandma and grandpa are.”
Parents may only see their children on brief visits back to Bulgaria from countries such as England, Germany or the United States.
“We didn’t feel that was the way God intended families to function, and the only way that’s going to change is if we can create income,” Al said. “Sometimes the unemployment rate — in the winter months especially — can be as high as 80 percent.”
Right now, most of the livelihood groups can only offer part-time work, but that could change if sales increase.
“That’s part of where God is moving us: to create strategies for distribution and sales, so that not only our products, but products from other missions organizations within the movement can have distribution as well,” he said. “Our goal isn’t just in the Balkans. Our goal is to help missionaries within our movement find ways of helping their people support their families, support their churches, feel worth and dignity because they are earning something and not simply waiting for a handout.”
The Marketplace Manna mall store is located at 1088 Jackson Crossing, Jackson, MI 49202, and tax-deductible donations can be mailed there or given online by visiting marketplacemanna.biz and clicking on “Give.” Visit fmchr.ch/mellinger to learn more about the Mellingers’ various ministry efforts and to support them.2