Borderland Tees

Borderland Tees is a Community Shares "Institution of Change" (2014). 

Borderland Mural by Steve Wallace

Printing custom T-shirts in Knoxville for over 40 years

The Borderland Story

by Rev. Jenny Arthur


In 2008, a young man we will call "Stanley" was coming around the church where I worked. He was 30 years old, homeless, emaciated, super-intelligent and in a full-blown delusional state later diagnosed as schizophrenia. I did not want to call the police, because mental illness is not a crime, but I was unsure how to help him. Over a couple of weeks, he would come and go.  Sometimes I would find him camped out and smoking cigarettes in one of the Sunday School rooms, sometimes scavenging in the church kitchen (even eating mayonnaise out of a jar, he was so hungry.) I talked with him often, but his delusional state made it impossible to reason with him, though he had a large vocabulary and was quite smart. All this time I could not figure out how to help him in a meaningful way.

Then one day he came in badly beaten up, still quiet thin and talking to himself. I had a strong sense that he would die on the streets if I did not do something, but I still did not want to call the police. I consulted with my friend Bob Riehl, who was always ready to help someone. Bob had a screen-printing shop in Fountain City. He said, "Well, ask him if he wants a job." Stanley agreed to go with Bob, and boy was I ever happy to see them ride off in the van! Stanley was the worst "employee" you could possibly imagine in his delusional state. He managed to box up and shirts and earn a little cigarette money, but mostly he had a safe place to hang out. Over the next year, he would ride with Bob on long deliveries to Pigeon Forge and elsewhere, and over time -- an amount of time I could have never given him in a church office setting -- Stanley grew to trust Bob. We helped him get approved for disability, so he had a little income; we tracked down his family; and he even agreed to be treated for his schizophrenia.   

Over the course of a year, Stanley had much more stability, and we realized the power of this workplace model for transformative ministry. So Bob and I decided to open a separate print shop specifically for cultivating these relationships. We called it Borderland Tees -- "Borderland" because we wanted to include people on the borders or margins of our society, people who suffer from what Mother Teresa called "a poverty of relationship." We offer friendship to people regardless of their circumstance, be it a prison record, addiction, mental illness, disability, homelessness, etc., striving to be "A Place of No Last Chance." We enjoy our place in the Old Sevier neighborhood of South Knoxville, which has been a home to people in recovery for many years. Our community also includes people who are in none of these situations -- we welcome all who are looking for community, because we've seen good things happen when we support each other.

Borderland is a social enterprise, not a non-profit, because we want our ministry to be self-funding, much like monasteries where people spend much of their day making something to sell to sustain themselves. When people ask if they can donate, we encourage them to buy some shirts instead. We especially love to print for community organizations, churches, and other small businesses like ourselves; and we love to support people as they develop their own entrepreneurial enterprises. We call it "Capitalism for the Common Good." We are not a job-training program, but sometimes people find work. We are not a housing ministry, but sometimes people find a place to live. We are a ministry of individual relationships, not a program. As Bob says, "God is in the retail business, not the wholesale business."