Robes for judges, vestments for clergy: A unique social enterprise hopes for a January startup in Baltimore | COMMENTARY

Rev. Chester France, right, is the founder and chairman of Lifting Labels. At left is one of the nonprofit's board members, Allen Holsopple. The organization hopes to launch its apparel manufacturing operation in January.
Rev. Chester France, right, is the founder and chairman of Lifting Labels. At left is one of the nonprofit's board members, Allen Holsopple. The organization hopes to launch its apparel manufacturing operation in January. (Chill Station Baltimore)

I found these words tagged to the end of an email from a retired prison chaplain named Chester France: “The only way we can measure the significance of our lives is how we value the lives of others.”

That’s a quotation from a movie about capital punishment, but I immediately thought of the pandemic and what the doctors keep telling us: Wear face masks to protect the people around you from infection. Show others you care about them.


I won’t apologize for bringing the pandemic into this space again. With thousands getting sick and hundreds dying every day across the country, it’s top of mind and unavoidable. And so I connected “valuing the lives of others” to wearing a mask.

That’s not to say it’s some grand act of selflessness. It’s not. It’s merely a responsibility, a civic duty.


What Chester France has been working on for several years — and what finally appears ready to become a reality for people in need — reflects the sentiment in that quote from his email.

The idea of finding self-worth in selflessness — giving your life significance by valuing the lives of others — predates the current crisis and we should hope it survives. It’s what drives people to go above and beyond what they need to do for themselves and their families. It’s why, beyond paycheck and pension, millions of men and women choose to become teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers or first responders. It’s the root of volunteerism. It’s what sends men and women into the military or the Peace Corps. It’s the genesis of thousands of nonprofits. It’s the quiet power that gets things done every day.

I first spoke with Chester France about four years ago. In January 2017, I reported on his project to help ex-offenders find jobs once they come home from prison. This was a week after Donald Trump took the oath of office as president and gave his dark inaugural speech. So it was a good time to introduce you to France and his big idea: Put former prison inmates to work making robes for ministers, judges and choirs.

France, a native of West Baltimore with degrees in business, religion and social work, wanted to develop a sustainable model for his new social enterprise. He had experience in the business world, in insurance marketing and sales, and he had served 17 years as a protestant chaplain in Maryland prisons.

So he established Lifting Labels with the idea of putting ex-offenders to work making clerical vestments, judicial robes and academic regalia. The idea seemed to make immense sense.

While incarcerated, some Maryland inmates are trained to make clothing for other inmates and uniforms for correctional officers. So France knew he could find workers with sewing skills.

As a minister, he had connections among the clergy; he knew there was a market for robes across religious denominations and across state lines. Having a social mission, providing work for former inmates who otherwise have a tough time landing good jobs, would give Lifting Labels an edge.

France just needed some investor angels to help him get started, and that’s why it has taken four years, since my first column, for Lifting Labels to launch. (The pandemic affected his startup plans, too.)

To be honest, I thought maybe France had given up. Then his email arrived in July, announcing $200,000 in investor commitments once the manufacturing and sales start.

I slipped his email into a future file and went back to writing about the pandemic, Trump, the election, Baltimore’s violent crime problems and other uplifting stuff.

Then, on Sunday, an email arrived from Judge Dan Friedman of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. He was in the market for a second robe to wear on the bench and wanted to get in touch with Lifting Labels. The judge’s inquiry made me curious about the project, so I contacted France again.

Turns out, all systems are go, or just about.


France recruited and established a board of directors. He looked for socially conscious investors and found significant help through Innovation Works and Ignite Capital, Open Works and generous individuals. He’s had mentors, people with experience in business, to help him develop his plan.

The idea all along has been sustainability, France says, and by that he means a nonprofit that makes ends meet without having to hunt down donations and annual grants from foundations.

It’s hoped that Lifting Labels will finally start — with five employees and an operations manager — in one of the city’s good spaces for entrepreneurs, at 1100 Wicomico Street in Pigtown in southwest Baltimore. France and his team are still looking for funds for their 2021 startup budget through crowdfunding.

They have targeted early January for the launch.

I wish them well.

That quote from France’s email, along with our stressed and stressful political climate, got me thinking: Some people spend their lives making a lot of noise and accomplishing very little. Some obsess about the wrong things and small things, and they end up missing life’s grand opportunities. Some people just never try to make a positive difference in this world.

But, to the benefit of all, many others do. They are blessed with patience and persistence. They build lives of significance by enriching the lives of others and by leaving this wounded, weary world a little better than they found it.

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