Holy Joe's perks up chaplains' ministry
Written by Jeff Woodard
December 2008 - January 2009

Troops in Iraq enjoy fellowship at Holy Joe's Café. James Suddeth photo.
Providing comfort and coffee to soldiers

Going for coffee these days seems as American as mom, baseball and apple pie. While it might actually involve grabbing a cup of whatever it is that gets us going, its primary purpose may be to strengthen social ties or show support for a friend in need.

Nowhere is this more evident — or more appreciated — than among U.S. military personnel taking part in the initiative known as Holy Joe's Café. Thanks to Thomas Jastermsky and a dedicated core of volunteers, troops don't have to go for coffee; it's coming to them.

"It has really taken off," says Jastermsky, a deacon at First Congregational UCC in Wallingford, Conn., who developed the initiative and set it into motion two years ago. "We're now sending coffee to 95 chaplains in locations in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan."

Serving a variety of settings, the movement has grown dramatically both within the UCC and ecumenically, says Jastermsky. "There's a huge need for this. The chaplaincy is a ministry of presence, and coffee is a way for more real interaction."

Holy Joe's provides soldiers a quiet place to talk with friends, converse with chaplains or write a letter home. "Our community coffee bar has become the lifeblood of the camp," writes Chaplain Michael J. Lovett. "Your donations have had a direct impact on our operations. Your act of kindness not only meets a physical need but also strengthens our troops emotionally."

Jastermsky and the Rev. John Gundlach, UCC Minister for Government Chaplaincies, both note that many of the troops have had little church background or spiritual development, so Holy Joe's provides prayer groups and fellowship opportunities.
"These people are receiving care at a time in their life when they have no spiritual background," says Gund-lach. "You never know what kinds of seeds are going to get planted in a situation like that, when their moral and spiritual underpinnings are being challenged."

While the pipeline of caffeine and conversation is greatly appreciated by service personnel abroad, they are equally as grateful for prayers from back home, says Jastermsky. "It's about helping individuals get through a lot of tough situations."

The internet, for all its modern-day advantages, is not always helpful. It forges an unprecedented link between active-duty troops and loved ones far away. But a click of a mouse is just as apt to bring news of hardships at home — illness, job loss, financial squeeze. "Chaplains are our first line of defense, especially for our younger troops, who are dealing with a lot internally," says Jastermsky. "It's hot, it's rotten, it's war — and then everything back home is going on."

The outreach of Holy Joe's Café extends to combat hospitals in Iraq and on-site "decompression models" where soldiers can speak one-on-one with chaplains. "A third system is to go out to the FOBs (forward operating bases), which are smaller locations of 35 or 40 people," says Jastermsky.

Holy Joe's is funded by checks from churches or by donors participating via UCC-sponsored Equal Exchange, which ships coffee overseas. Among the most giving of the volunteers, says Jastermsky, is Carol Wallace of Middlefield, Conn. "She has made donations to cover the cost of shipping. That's a huge component, because with materials, logistics and everything, 30 percent of our cost is shipping. It shows how much a couple of people in the right area can make huge impact on this program."

Jan Resseger, Minister for Public Education and Witness with the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries in Cleveland, applauds Jastermsky's good work. "When our church members send Equal Exchange coffee to Holy Joe's Café, they are simultaneously supporting fair trade and supporting out troops," she says. The UCC Coffee Project is a way for congregations to support fair prices for coffee farmers in the developing world. We are so glad that Thomas Jastermsky had the imagination to link the UCC Coffee Project to the important work of our military chaplains."

Chaplain Joseph H. Riley echoes Resseger, thanking "the mighty fine saints that are reaching across the water to the desert place. The Lord sure is teaching us some important truths in our wilderness experience."

For further information or to donate coffee to Holy Joe's Cafe, please call 888/970-7994 or e-mail holyjoescafe@aol.com. To donate via Equal Exchange, call 774/776-7366. The UCC Coffee Project website is www.ucc.org/justice/coffee-project.

Jeff Woodard is a regular contributor to United Church News. 

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