A choice of coffee and creed

One of the reasons I go to church is that I feel the need for a point Zero, a place where I can reflect and get inspiration and strength to continue my engagement with social justice. A faith community is also a place to disseminate ideas of how to work for peace and justice in the world, often over a cup of coffee.

A few months ago was the first Sunday of serving ”Fair trade” coffee at coffee hour following our church service, and as much as I was delighted by this long over-due change, I couldn’t help hearing a few complain about this useless expenditure, “useless” in the sense that the old coffee was more than good enough.

That much, for coffee: have we all gone nuts? Wasn’t there some better place we could put this money to use?

So what’s the point of changing our coffee habits?

I could start out answering this question, by talking about ethical consumption, but I’ll start even further back, in the spiritual realm.

We are not alone. We live in God’s world.

To me, the reflection on how and what I consume, is based in the feeling I get when I say these first two sentences of The New Creed, that we frequently use in the United Church of Canada. The weight of those words is still awe-inspiring to me, even after having said them innumerable times. “We are not alone” connects us at the same time to God and to our fellow human beings. The focus is not on “God and I”, but on a relationship to God that is shared with the rest of humanity. This raises my awareness of how everything I do is connected to and has an impact on others, how spending and use of resources is not just a question of me and my pocketbook, but of how to use scarce resources justly in an unjust world.

Once upon a time it was easier to see injustices directly, the physical distance from farmer to consumer and from factory to consumer, were shorter. In our days it is possible to live a whole life without ever feeling the connection to those who grow our food, or sew our clothes, or make it possible to fill our life with endless amounts things we don’t know where to put. This disconnect allows us to think that we are only responsible to ourselves and the bank for how we spend our money, and the rest of humankind disappears from the equation since we don’t see them.

But not seeing how injustice is connected to us and to our actions, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

We are called to be the Church: to celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in Creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil.

If trade is a path, then fair trade is about the people it links together, and who travel along it. If the trade is fair then there is a balanced traffic in both directions. The problem is that for a lot of “southern” products, it is different. For example, huge quantities of coffee arrive at their final destinations in our stores, and at our coffee shops – but only a trickle of cash ever returns to the coffee farmers in the south. Very little is done to coffee after it leaves the farmers hands, and still almost all the money from coffee trade goes to exporters, shippers, roasters and retailers (about 90% of final sales price of conventional coffee). When the price of coffee fluctuates, it’s the farmer that takes the blow, because he/she is forced to accept the prices offered by large corporations, even if this price doesn’t even cover the cost of production. The rest of the line of trade is hardly touched by the lower price, and continue to make a profit.

When learning about how coffee trade unjustly keeps working farmers in poverty, drinking coffee turns into a moral dilemma. The fair trade idea was born in 1970s, but has finally in the past ten years grown to have a market share where it has become relevant. By switching to fair trade coffee, we’re not changing the world with a bang, but we’re part of a movement pushing for justice; we’re part of the solution instead of part of the problem. And when we read our creed, we should acknowledge that buying fair trade is good for the soul, just as buying organic is good for the body.

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~ by Hege on February 2, 2010.

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