Russell Curtis is the Chief Executive of Invest Durban, which acts as a trade and development partnership between the Metro City Council and the private business sector in KZN, South Africa. He was born in Zambia, and grew up in Zimbabwe, the US, and West Berlin. Russell holds a post-graduate Degree in Business Administration from the University of Wales, UK, an MBA (Essentials) from the London School of Economics, as well as various several post-graduate Diplomas. He served on the UN Investment Advisory Council in 2008/9 and 2016/17, and also heads up City Story, which is an active network drawn from government, business, churches, and NGOs to build up Durban communities in practical ways. This is a summary of his inspiring interview with Ziwani’s Sibs Sibanda.
“Everyone of us is put on this earth for a purpose. It’s about embracing the mission that God has for us, and having a sense of significance and worth as we journey through life.” Russell Curtis, Chief Executive of Invest Durban, speaks with passion about embracing the cities we live in as our mission field.
In this candid interview, Sibs Sibanda and Russell Curtis explore the challenges overcome and lessons learned in walking this long journey of actively working to build flourishing communities through business. Sibs starts the conversation by exploring Russell’s diverse background and the origin story of his zeal for the intersection of cities and the Gospel.
Twenty years ago, after a ‘prodigal son’ encounter with God, Russell started Invest Durban which “in the last three years alone, brought in about R4 billion worth of investment and created 8,000 jobs.” Russel explains, “My love of embracing my city as a mission field has grown and progressed over the years. I realised it’s more about partnering with the Spirit as God builds his church. He is building that church in people, government, business, and NGOs.”
Motivated by generous justice
Sibs is intrigued that when Russell speaks of embracing our city as our mission, he mentions very practical results like increased jobs and higher revenue. Sibs posits that, “many of us Christians think of preaching or evangelism when we hear the word ‘mission’.”
To counter this assumption, Sibs asks Russell how he considers his work to be missional rather than purely vocational. Russell agrees that a ‘mission’ is actually ‘an important assignment’. He encourages us to start with the ‘why’. “Generous justice and embracing the city as your mission field is absolutely central to your sanctification once you are saved,” he says. “When you get the ‘why’ you will embrace the city from a sense of beauty, not duty.” He highly recommends Timothy Keller’s book Generous Justice to better understand this notion of the beauty of cities and God’s heart for generous justice.
Russell is passionate about helping business leaders see that their business is not separate from church or mission. “Don’t think that the only people in ministry or on mission are church or NGO leaders. Nothing could be further from the truth! You, in your business, are on a Christian mission, and you can use the various arms of your business operations on a daily basis to be in ministry with your staff, suppliers, and customers.”
Key lessons learned
In light of understanding ‘the why behind the what’, Sibs asks Russell to share his lessons learned along the way. Russell, a firm believer that “we never stop going to school,” shares these valuable insights:
“As much as possible, use neutral venues, language, and platforms. The more inclusive and welcoming you are, the more people will step towards you, feel recognised and be excited to join you.”
“Be sure that you anchor yourself deeply in God before you embark on this mission – on a radical, passionate, and emotional level. So that when the inevitable waves of frustration, disappointment, hurt, or offense wash over your bow, you won’t be thrown off course.”
“In never giving up, I can assure you, you will eventually see the things you’re hoping for, the impact you’re making and new relationships organically breeding around you.” Galatians 6:9 reminds us: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
“Pray regularly in groups and covet prayer as a covering for yourself and team.”
Responding to challenges
Sibs probes the challenges Russell has faced while living out his love for the city and being involved in the three spheres of business, church, and government, “because it’s no secret that in all three these spheres fear, ego, and a desire for power and control play a big role.”
Russell, never one to shy away from a challenge, shares this sage advice:
“It is very important to get a deeper, technical understanding of what forgiveness is and what it isn’t. And then put this into practice more.”
“We must balance the default setting of corporate power and control with much more shared authority.”
“Exert yourself to get out of your cultural comfort zone because the love and the blessings that come back to you from cross-cultural relationships and activities are huge. You get such a sense of franchise, unity, love, and partnership.”
“If you are starting something in a group that’s dominated by your own culture, it’s easy to rush ahead because we want to get stuff done. But if you want it to be sustainable and the whole village to go with you, you have to intentionally slow down. Talk more, meet more and be sure everyone agrees with the direction, pace, aims, objectives, and the ultimate destination.”
Sibs comments on the challenge of cultural complexities, that “so often misunderstanding and complexities are born out of a lack of appreciation of different cultures and the way things are done.” Russell agrees, responding that “we need to exuberantly celebrate the beauty, love, strength (and fun!) in diversity”.
Practical ways to start now
Sibs poses a practical question to Russell about what embracing the city as our mission could look like for “people much like myself who work in business and love Jesus, but don’t have a particular sense of calling to partner with government and the church in quite the same way that you have?”
Russel shares a few starting points for business leaders to jump straight in:
“Form, or join, a group of people that share the same passions. It doesn’t matter if it’s education, sport, feeding people, media, or any other sphere of life.”
“Go in with a radically servant-hearted approach and exert yourself to help connect, inform, empower, help, finance, and include others. And then see how embracing your city as your mission field together with others, dims the problems you have in life, gives you breakthrough in areas of difficulties, and opens huge new opportunities in your business.”
“I’m desperate to see greater mobilisation in the local church, by the local church, with the local church. A great place to start is with your own church leadership, either by getting involved with what they are doing or starting a conversation about it. Beyond that, I think there are fantastic resources and opportunities in other faith-and-work initiatives such as Ziwani. There’s also different combined church initiatives, for example, Movement Day is one that periodically hosts city leadership meetings on Zoom through the Movement Day platforms across Africa and the world.”
In conclusion, Russel reminds us that “there are endless opportunities for people to get involved – but don’t serve out of a sense of duty. Do it from a heart of appreciation that you get to be part of this great mission. Embrace building your city through your business, and through your daily activities in the community where you live. That is why God put us on this earth – to partner with him as he builds his church. Jesus is coming back to a powerful, beautiful, unified, informed, and resourced bride.”