Finding Mercy in a Cup of Coffee

We cannot remain indifferent before the cries of our brothers and sisters. These ask of us not only material assistance . . . but above all, our help to defend their dignity as human persons, so that they can find the spiritual energy to become once again protagonists in their own lives. They ask us to fight, in the light of the Gospel, the structural causes of poverty: inequality, the shortage of dignified work and housing, and the denial of their rights as members of society and as workers. As Christians we are called together to eliminate that globalization of indifference which today seems to reign supreme, while building a new civilization of love and solidarity.
— Pope Francis, Istanbul, November 30, 2014

I grew up in the United States, but also lived in Mexico, Guatemala and Europe. These cross-cultural experiences have formed me, and I often find myself ‘homesick’ for the unique intercultural encounters I used to have every day. Catholic Relief Services (CRS) gives me the opportunity to encounter people from around the world every day, and carry them with me even though I’m not able to go overseas to meet them in person.

I often think about these people in the morning, when I make a cup of coffee to start my day. As the rich smell of coffee fills my kitchen, I think of the people whose hard work planted, cultivated, harvested, shipped, and roasted the very beans that go into my coffee maker. One of these people is Maria, a young woman learning to grow coffee in Nariño, Colombia. I feel particularly connected to Maria because I, too, am a young woman at the beginning of my career.

Meet Maria:

As people of faith, we are a global family.  This pushes us to shed our lens of individuality. Increasing my global awareness has not always been as comforting as my morning coffee. Learning about the origin of my food brings to my attention the difficult reality that we live in and contribute to a very broken world. I discover that my coffee comes at a price—and a price often much higher than $8 per pound.

In many ways, our global economy has a devastating impact on people like Maria. Eight years ago, her family was forced to leave their home in Cumbitara, Colombia to escape violence. Much of Colombia’s poverty and violence is linked to years of internal political tensions, the devastating drug trade (that is now starting to dwindle), and Free Trade Agreements that create an open playground for corporations to treat workers and the land as a means for profit.

Seeking work and safe refuge, Maria’s family resettled in another part of Nariño, a region of Colombia that has been famous for its coffee. As strangers in their new home, Maria’s parents struggled to find work, and she was made fun of for being an outsider.

Changes that seem insignificant have a much larger impact on people in other parts of the world. The climate change that may cause a little more snow in Chicago is completely transforming the coffee industry, as rising temperatures in the ‘coffee belt’ around the Equator destroy thousands of acres of coffee plantations—leaving entire communities without their source of livelihood.

Yet here, with a Starbucks on every corner, wouldn’t you think that coffee is abundant and easy to come by?

Coffee grows on small bushes inside these red berries, which are then husked to reveal green beans. The beans are cleaned, dried, and finally roasted. Photo: CRS

Coffee grows on small bushes inside these red berries, which are then husked to reveal green beans. The beans are cleaned, dried, and finally roasted. Photo: CRS

“The globalization of indifference”—a favorite phrase of Pope Francis—comes to mind. Even as our world becomes more and more interconnected via the internet and ever-growing forms of technology, we remain indifferent to the real stories of people all over the world—people very much like us. Our indifference allows us to ignore the very real impact that our lifestyles have on those like Maria and in places like Nariño.

By learning about the coffee industry, I have discovered that my purchases and my votes both have an impact on Maria and so many others around the world. I now make sure that I buy certified Fair Trade, organic coffee so that I know the families who depend on it for their livelihood will receive fair compensation—and the environment will be protected in the way the coffee is grown. I also take the impact of U.S. policies and practices on the world’s most vulnerable into consideration when I vote. In each of these choices, I participate in building a better global economy, an economy that moves our global community into right relationship as Gods' creation.

Fortunately, in Maria’s new home of Nariño, projects like CRS Borderlands are developing ways to sustain the coffee industry by adapting to the challenges of climate change. As part of the CRS Borderlands Project, Maria and other young people are training to become leaders in the coffee industry. Maria is learning cutting edge agriculture methods to grow the best gourmet coffee and ensure Nariño will be growing coffee for generations to come.

“It is in my blood,” Maria says. “Coffee is so much a part of everyday life-not just for me and my family, but globally. It’s not just a plant or something you drink, it brings people together.”

Maria poses with her parents in their new home in Colombia. Photo: CRS

Maria poses with her parents in their new home in Colombia. Photo: CRS

This Lent, CRS Rice Bowl provides a unique way for each of us to participate in the worldwide Jubilee of Mercy. The Jubilee of Mercy is a time to ask for forgiveness, to wholeheartedly offer forgiveness to others, and to act collectively as a human family to heal the brokenness in our world.

One way we do that is by building a more just, more human global economy. This economy would affirm the dignity of each person by establishing economic transactions and systems that best utilize the abilities and serve the needs of each person. It would ensure that our material needs are met, in order to allow each person to “find the spiritual energy to become once again protagonists in their own lives.

How is your daily life connected to people like Maria? During the Jubilee of Mercy, how will you “fight, in the light of the Gospel, the structural causes of poverty” and “eliminate that globalization of indifference which today seems to reign supreme”?

Visit www.ChicagoPeaceAndJustice.org/CRSRiceBowl to learn more about CRS Rice Bowl and many other ways you can be an instrument of Mercy in our global society.

**CRS Borderlands Coffee from Colombia available through: Counter Culture, Intelligentsia, and Stumptown Coffee. Coffee sold by SERRV and JustCoffee (through the Office for Peace and Justice) also supports the Fair Trade work of CRS worldwide.