Coffee, Faith and Fellowship: Reflections from El Salvador

By Cheryl Mrazik

I made it all the way through both my undergraduate and graduate school education without a sip of coffee. That’s right, you read correctly – I somehow survived late nights of studying and paper-writing without constant caffeination. Believe it or not, the catalyst for my initiation into the world of coffee consumption was the fellowship I observed among co-workers over their first cup of coffee each morning, sitting around a table with a steaming mug and chatting about life.

And, truthfully, my foray into coffee – as romanticized as this sounds – has been a gift in my life. After all, a cup of coffee is much more than that requisite jolt many of us rely on to wake up each morning. How many times have we caught up with old friends over a cup of coffee, showed hospitality to others by brewing a pot for guests, or attended “coffee and donut” hours after church services? Coffee is about friendship, fellowship, unity, and as we at CRS have come to believe (largely due to the fair trade movement), coffee is also about solidarity, respect, and partnership.

This other powerful, unifying force of coffee has never been more apparent to me than on a recent trip to El Salvador with CRS Fair Trade partner Equal Exchange, during which we visited one of their partners, the Las Colinas coffee cooperative. Our time at Las Colinas was a beautiful example of the solidarity and partnership that comes from Fair Trade. The farmers couldn’t help but beam with pride and excitement when we talked about our friends, families, and other Equal Exchange customers purchasing and enjoying coffee grown at Las Colinas. And we couldn’t help but share their pride and joy when they told us that, as a result of the social premiums they earn as fair trade producers, their community has celebrated its first high school graduate, followed by many others since.

Despite amazing advances, Las Colinas still faces many challenges, including serious flooding last year that washed out their roads and destroyed the main bridge to their community, which can only be repaired at the price tag of $180,000. But, as one of the farmers, Julio, told us: “Our struggle continues, but we are not tired.” As we fair traders face skepticism and now major changes in the movement, how can we not be inspired and encouraged by Julio’s optimism and hope? How can we not continue to struggle with the farmers of Las Colinas and small farmers and producers all over the world?

At the beginning of the trip, our group attended mass in the chapel which houses Archbishop Oscar Romero’s tomb. One of the symbols on Romero’s tomb is a coffee bean sprig, signifying how he stood with the poor of El Salvador, accompanying them in the midst of hardship and struggle. May we, too, embrace coffee as a symbol of our solidarity, of our struggle, of our fellowship with each other and with the poor and vulnerable around the world, and may we continue to “plant the seeds” toward our vision of justice.

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