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Coffee importers' efforts grounded in faith

Just Coffee sells Fair Trade blends to churches and other consumers, using the money to address illegal immigration by helping Mexican growers remain on their farms.

March 27, 2011|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times
  • Tommy Bassett shows some of Just Coffee's beans during the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress. In the background are Sister Maria, right, and Sister Teresa of the Order of Clarisse.
Tommy Bassett shows some of Just Coffee's beans during the Los Angeles… (Stefano Paltera/For The…)

Sometimes, a cup of coffee is more than just a cup of coffee.

That, at least, is the fervent belief of two Arizonans, one a buttoned-down Presbyterian minister, the other a tie-dyed Roman Catholic renegade. They are convinced that a steaming cup of cafe arabica could do nothing less than help solve the problem of illegal immigration.

And that's just for starters. They also believe it can bring together liberals and conservatives, fulfill the Old Testament's prophetic vision of a "new heaven and new earth," and bring the wolf together with the lamb.

It's a lot to ask of a simple cup of joe.

The Rev. Mark Adams and Tommy Bassett III are among the founders of Just Coffee — Café Justo in Spanish — that links two sets of interconnected needs: American churches need coffee, lots of it. Mexican farmers need a predictable income stream. Put them together and you have not only a viable business model, but an incentive for Mexican coffee growers to stay on their farms rather than migrate to the United States.

"You can bemoan the immigration problem from a variety of perspectives," said Bassett, the bearded, tie-dyed member of the partnership. "Generally, people agree that if the coffee's good and if the people who grow it can make a living, they're going to stay where they are."

He spoke during a recent promotional trip to Orange County, where he ran a booth at the Los Angeles Religious Education Conference, an annual Catholic event that draws about 40,000 people to the Anaheim Convention Center. Bassett was there to persuade more churches to become customers of Just Coffee. He also was doing a brisk business selling it by the pound.

Founded in 2002, Just Coffee is part of a larger ecumenical movement in which faith-based organizations have embraced the Fair Trade movement, which pays producers in developing countries above-market rates for agricultural and other products and holds them to higher labor and environmental standards. Many churches and synagogues see it as part of their social justice mission to support the movement.

Equal Exchange, a pioneer and market leader in the Fair Trade movement, sells coffee to about 10,000 religious congregations, accounting for about 20% of its business, spokesman Rodney North said.

Just Coffee grew out of a series of conversations between Adams and Eduardo Perez Verdugo, who had left his family's farm in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas in search of better paying work. Adams was helping to run Frontera de Cristo, a bi-national Presbyterian ministry that operated in the neighboring border towns of Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, and Douglas, Ariz.

After an ill-fated attempt to cross into the United States, Perez had a heartfelt talk with Adams. Perez, Adams said, was angry that a drop in the price of coffee had made it impossible for him, as for many Mexicans, to support his family.

"He said, 'To leave our land is to suffer,' " Adams recalled. The minister saw that as a "deeply prophetic" statement, offering a mirror image of the vision described by the prophet Isaiah: "They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit."

The meaning seemed clear. The question was what to do about it.

That would have to wait for a chance encounter between Adams and Tommy Bassett at what the latter described as a "Jewish-atheist Hanukkah party to protest Christmas." As Bassett recalled it, Adams told him the problem and asked, "Isn't there something we can do?" Hundreds of migrants were dying in the Arizona desert. Organizations were trying to help them by leaving caches of water in the desert, among other methods.

"It dawned on us that maybe we could address the root cause of migration," said Bassett, who at the time was helping to manage a U.S. plant across the border.

The model they ultimately developed differed significantly from that of most other Fair Trade organizations. Just Coffee promised to pay above-market prices for the beans, but also agreed that the farmer cooperatives in Chiapas would be responsible for roasting and packaging them, which is where much of the profit lies.

"We call it Fair Trade Plus," Bassett said. He and Adams are critical of organizations such as Equal Exchange that buy green beans — at above-market rates — then roast and package them in the United States.

North, the Equal Exchange spokesman, said it was an unfair comparison. "We're both social change organizations, but it's apples and oranges," he said. "We're trying to do different things with different people."

In the nine years since Just Coffee began, it has allowed coffee farming communities in Chiapas to thrive, Bassett and Adams say. Schools, shops and restaurants have opened, and — significantly — migrants have begun to return from the United States. Recently, Adams and Bassett established similar relationships with two farming communities in Haiti.

Just Coffee has shipped its products to 279 churches, most in the Southwest, a few in California. Among its supporters is the Catholic Diocese of Orange, which encourages its parishes to buy from the organization.

It's a matter of economic justice, said Georgeann Lovett, who heads the Respect Life, Justice and Peace ministry for the diocese. "The idea is that when people are working, they should be provided wages for that work that sustains them … and sustains their families," she said.

Shirl Giacomi, the chancellor of the diocese, visited a farming village in Chiapas that sells to Just Coffee. Young people who once would have gone to the U.S. were staying on their family farms, she said, and there were other, unexpected benefits, such as clean water — required for coffee processing, but made available to the entire village.

"It was really rather amazing," she said. "The entire community was benefiting."

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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