Across the UCC: Java justice

Across the UCC: Java justice

August 31, 2005
Written by Daniel Hazard
Fair trade products gaining support

Churches contribute to justice — through coffee

Equal Exchange works with the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries to support fair trade coffee.

In the Pacific Northwest, coffee is a big deal.

Starbucks Coffee had its humble beginnings in Seattle before it practically became a national obsession.

Five years ago, Susan Meyer, then the president of Mission and Outreach at First Congregational UCC in Hillsboro, Ore., was looking for a way to expand the church's global ministry.

By selling coffee through Equal Exchange, a fair trade organization that offers fairly traded gourmet coffee direct from small-scale farmer co-ops in Latin America, Africa and Asia, Meyer discovered the church could mark it up enough to raise money for their mission fund, while still offering a lower price than fair trade coffee in stores.

A year later, says Meyer, the whole church got on board, using only fair trade coffee for coffee hours, potlucks and other church events. And they still have a display in their lobby, where Fair Trade coffee, tea, hot chocolate and chocolate bars are available for purchase throughout the week.

Last year, the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries (JWM) launched the UCC Coffee Project, partnering with Equal Exchange. Over 500 UCC congregations have become part of the Coffee Project. In return for every case of coffee, tea, cocoa and chocolate sold by participating congregations, Equal Exchange makes a contribution to JWM to further benefit coffee-growing communities.

Maybe it's just a cup of coffee, but U.S. coffee drinkers represent a whopping 20 percent of the world's total coffee market. According to the UCC website, U.S. consumers down approximately 320 million cups of coffee each day.

And since coffee growers often don't have easy access to markets, that means much of that revenue goes to "middle men," who pay only a minimal price to the grower, then turn around and sell it at great profit. "It's amazing how much those middle-men make," says Meyer. "You read how the farmers work so hard and they just work for cents. When Equal Exchange comes out with stories [in their quarterly newsletter], they're just fabulous to re-publish and pass on to the congregation, of people in villages who have gotten back on their feet, families who have gotten back together."

Peace Café offers fair trade coffee, community exposure

First Congregational UCC in Montclair, N.J., is situated in a busy, suburban downtown district. The church houses a highly respected daycare center, and provides space for "Outpost in the 'Burbs," a group that sponsors cultural events. The church building, laments the Rev. Scott Howell, "was literally, 'that place where these other things happen.'"

Howell and his parishioners are working to change that. Last year the church declared itself "Open and Affirming." "And we've got 'God is Still Speaking' signs all over," he says.

The congregation is also part of the UCC Coffee Project.

First Congregational UCC had something to say. "But one of the things we were struggling with was just letting the community know that there is a faith community in this building," says Howell. "Just having the doors open and having the typical Sunday morning church thing wasn't working. That's why the idea of the Peace Cafe sort of came out. It was an opportunity to invite people, but also let them know a little bit about what we were about."

The Peace Cafe is simple: Friday evenings, a few tables are set up outside the church. Anyone can stop by to enjoy some conversation and a free cup of coffee — fair trade coffee, of course.

Materials explaining the UCC Coffee Project and other justice-related issues are always on hand. "It's just an opportunity for people to get a sense of who we are in a non-Sunday morning environment," explains Howell.

Howell says the Peace Cafe is a safe place for visitors to ask questions. "We have a big red sign on the building that says, 'Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we,' so a lot of people stop by and go, 'What is this?'"

What began as an informal, neighborhood gathering is becoming an effective tool for First Congregational UCC to spread their message of love, acceptance, and social awareness.

"[This congregation] is very much on a journey of renewal," Howell says. "If we didn't have a 100 year-old building, I'd say we were a new church start!"

Minnesota justice advocate committed to fair trade products

Fair trade is a topic near and dear to Lyn Clark Pegg's heart.

In 2004, Pegg, a member of Peace UCC in Duluth, Minn., traveled with a delegation from Witness for Peace (a grassroots organization committed to support, among other things, sustainable economies in the Americas) to Nicaragua.

There, she saw the extreme poverty in both urban and rural settings; farmers struggling to compete with U.S. subsidized agribusiness; poorly paid sweatshop workers in terrible conditions. In contrast, farmers who sell their products in a fair trade market and workers in fair trade-certified shops and sewing cooperatives are able to earn decent wages, support their families, and build a future.

This fall, Duluth will be home to the second annual Fair Trade Festival on Nov. 12, featuring over 30 booths selling fair trade foods, crafts and clothing from local and international vendors.

Pegg, one of the organizers for the event, says the festival emphasizes both global as well as local producers and is meant to spread the good word about buying fair trade merchandise. "We advertise it as fair trade and fairly traded products," she says. "We don't want to undercut local people."

Live music by local musicians will punctuate the festival, and shoppers will also have a chance to attend informational workshops. Last year, ongoing workshops ranging from "How Wal-Mart Hurts Fair Trade," to a viewing of the full-length documentary, "Foul Repression: the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas Model," about the protests against the FTAA in Miami, were well-attended.

Pegg hopes the festival helps to grow the socially active core she senses in Duluth. "A lot of the people who have gone on the [Witness for Peace] Nicaragua delegations … were pretty actively involved with the Fair Trade Festival," says Pegg. "In Duluth, we have a fair amount of activism here!" She hopes the festival will help the movement gain momentum. "The more we talk about it, the more we push the products, the more it makes people conscious."

At General Synod 25, delegates approved a resolution calling upon the UCC to become a "fair trade denomination," by purchasing fair trade products and supporting fair trade cooperatives.

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