Cafe Justo links Mexican farmers, U.S. churches

Posted: April 21, 2011

LOS ANGELES - 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 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 - Cafe Justo in Spanish, online - 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 U. S.

"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," said Bassett, the bearded, tie-dyed member of the partnership.

He spoke during a recent promotional trip to Orange County, Calif., where he ran a booth at the Los Angeles Religious Education Conference. 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 percent 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, Verdugo had a heartfelt talk with Adams. Verdugo, 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.

As Bassett recalled it, Adams told him the problem and asked, "Isn't there something we can do?"

"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.

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 products to 279 churches, most in the Southwest, a few in California and one here, First Presbyterian Church In Philadelphia on South 21st Street, according to the organization.

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