BERRYVILLE — Vic Kennett wears one of his company's products while being interviewed. It's a T-shirt bearing a picture of a cross — red, with a drop of blood coming off it — and a slogan: A BLOOD DONOR SAVED MY LIFE. Pretty catchy, and there are lots more.
"We believe we're inspired by God," he says. "You never run out of material and the message never gets old."
Many of Kennett's employees at the Kerusso plant wear Kerusso T-shirts at work as well. One of them passes by in a shirt with a picture of a cross and the message "LIFEGUARD. Mine Walks on Water. Matthew 14:22-32."
Kerusso employees are not required to wear the company's products, and many don't. Nor are they required to believe the messages on the T-shirts. A for-profit company, Kerusso doesn't impose a religious litmus test on its workers, Kennett says. "But I'd say the majority of my people feel called to the company because of what we do."
Kerusso is, according to a news release, "the premier producer of Christian-themed apparel in the U.S." In person, Kennett modifies the claim a bit. "We're one of the biggest," he says. "We sell close to two million T-shirts a year." He declines to give a dollar amount, for competitive reasons, and is not required to, since the company is privately owned, by Kennett and his wife. The shirts retail for around $15. Most of Kerusso's business is wholesale.
The company occupies 65,000 square feet in three buildings, and employs about 90 people — a good-sized employer in a town like Berryville. Kennett, 47, is the president. He grew up in nearby Eureka Springs, his family having moved there from the Chicago area when young Vic was in the fifth grade. After high school, he sold real estate, and ran a fitness center for a time. The Kerusso plant includes a fitness center for employees. He was doing construction work, swinging a hammer, when he founded Kerusso in a spare bedroom of his home in 1987. "I had become a committed follower of Jesus Christ about a year before," he says, and although he enjoyed carpentry — an appropriate trade, considering — he pondered whether there was a way he could make a living out of sharing the gospel. He noticed that a lot of people were wearing T-shirts with messages on them, and suddenly it was Eureka! in Eureka Springs.
Starting up with seed money borrowed from his brother, he sold directly to consumers at first, placing ads in Campus Life, a Christian-themed magazine, before deciding there was more future in wholesaling. The Great Passion Play at Eureka Springs was among his first wholesale accounts. He contracted with a company for sales representatives to move Kerusso products nationwide, mostly in stores that sell Christian products — Bibles, books by Christian authors, gifts, greeting cards — but also in pharmacies, truck stops and other outlets. Eventually he was doing well enough to quit his construction job and devote fulltime to Kerusso.
A little research had led him to the name. He says he wanted something that sounded cool and a bit vague. Because the New Testament was written in Greek, he looked up the Greek equivalents of meaningful words in the English-language Bible, and found, he says, that "kerusso" is the Greek word for "preach." "Do you 'kerusso'?" a company catalog asks, adding "Change your shirt. Change the world!"
As there is some resistance to proselytism in public schools, one can imagine challenges to the wearing of Kerusso clothing by students, and students are Kerusso's principal market. A Kerusso press release even sounds mildly confrontational: "Kerusso Challenges Students to Share Their Faith on Campus! ... Students have First Amendment rights on a public school campus that cannot be denied without reason. Among their rights regarding religion on campus is the free distribution of Christian literature when class is not in session. In addition, students have the freedom to communicate Christian messages through apparel and/or school supplies and the freedom of voicing to others their beliefs as long as it does not interfere with class time. ... "
But Kennett says he's unaware of any kids getting in trouble for wearing Kerusso T-shirts to school, and he's not trying to provoke such incidents. "We just encourage kids to put their shirt on and go out and make an impact. There's a misconception that you can't wear this kind of thing to school, but the cases are clear. If T-shirts with other messages are allowed, you have to allow the Christian message too." He supposes a school could ban all communicative T-shirts, "but we haven't run into that."
(He wouldn't have to run far. The Pulaski County School District prohibits all writing on clothing items. Dress codes at the other two school districts in Pulaski County, Little Rock and North Little Rock, don't appear to prohibit the wearing of Kerusso-type clothing, and a spokesman for the Arkansas School Boards Association didn't know of any Arkansas schools that restrict the wearing of Christian-themed clothing, although he said there might be some. A woman in the North Little Rock School District office volunteered that her son wears a "Jesus Saves" T-shirt to school.
(It could depend on the Bible verse that's quoted, though. Schools do prohibit messages that are derogatory or discriminatory. Last month, according to WGN in Chicago, some students at an Illinois high school wore T-shirts with a biblical verse condemning homosexuality, and administrators made them cover the scripture.)
While T-shirts are the backbone of Kerusso's business, the company also sells inspirational buttons ("Jesus Loves Geeks"), backpacks ("Jesus is my BFF"), baseball caps, flashlights, compact hair brushes, and, for little girls, "praise ponies" that come in three models, named Faith, Hope and Love. The ponies and other non-clothing items are made in China.
A reporter liked a T-shirt with a drawing of a cross made from drumsticks, and the message "Drummers for Christ." (But is He for drummers?) Some of the messages are created in-house, Kennett says, and some are submitted by Kerusso fans.
Kennett has three children, one attending the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, one at Berryville High School, one at a school operated by the church the family attends in Eureka Springs. The church is nondenominational, Kennett says, "Fundamentalist, I guess. We believe that the Bible is the literal word of God."
His children sometimes wear Kerusso shirts, Kennett says. "I don't force them. It should be a personal choice for everybody."
Even Christian goods are not immune to economic downturn. "The last three years have been a struggle," Kennett says. "We had to cut some employees. That's never fun." But he thinks the slump made Kerusso stronger. "The indications are we'll have a really good year."