She touched my hand gently, as is the custom, and smiled brightly as she welcomed us into her home. I glanced down at her bare feet—they were calloused, rough, wide, toes splayed, out of proportion with her slight frame. She had the feet of a woman who had spent her life hauling heavy loads over rough, mountain trails.
Maria and her husband, Alberto, are coffee farmers. (Their names have been changed for this essay.) They live in a tiny village in the highlands of Veracruz, Mexico, in a lush forest where rain is abundant and coffee thrives. Dirt runs through their veins. They could probably plant lumps of clay and grow bricks if they put their minds to it.
For years, growing coffee paid adequately. Most sources report that coffee is the second most-heavily-traded commodity in the world, behind petroleum. How we love that bean! With so much demand for their product, you’d think coffee growers would live like kings!
You’d be wrong. The average family coffee farmer earns less than $1,000 annually for his crop. According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), a UN-chartered body which has declared a “coffee crisis,” last year’s coffee prices were at 30-year lows.
The problem is over-production. Nearly every developing nation grows coffee, and the burgeoning supply has driven prices down, even as consumption has grown.
Maria’s home is a single room, about 10 by 20 feet. The walls are made from smoke-blackened planks; sunlight peeks through the gaps. There are two windows but no glass. The roof is tar paper.
Maria, Alberto and their son share a bed. They eat at a beaten, wooden table with two chairs. Their kitchen is merely a corner where a fire burns atop an adobe platform, the smoke curling from the cracks in the walls. Maria cooks on a fired clay platter which sits on the coals.
What Maria lacks in material possessions she makes up for with a warm smile and a gracious heart. She has prepared us a meal—a piece of chicken in a red chile sauce with handmade tortillas and black beans. The chicken is an enormous extravagance, but she has pulled out all the stops to honor us. I marvel at her peace and joy. She knows Jesus. Knowing Jesus doesn’t ease her family’s hunger or her aching muscles, but it has brought kindness and love to her home, and sobriety. Many men in Alberto’s situation lose hope and drown themselves in pulque. Alberto works hard and stays sober.
We are the world’s wealthiest nation, and we consume more than a quarter of the world’s coffee. For some among us, the daily ritual of sipping that brown elixir is one of the sweetest experiences of life. The question is this: what responsibility do we have to the world’s poorest people, the coffee growers, who make that pleasure possible? Does it end at the supermarket checkout line, or does God expect something more of us?
“For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink…” “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink?…” “I assure you, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.” —Matthew 25:37-40, NLT, (Jesus telling a parable)
Give fair judgment to the poor and the orphan; uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute. Rescue the poor and helpless; deliver them from the grasp of evil people. —Psalm 82:3,4, NLT
Those who shut their ears to the cries of the poor will be ignored in their own time of need. —Proverbs 21:13, NLT
Away with your hymns of praise! They are only noise to my ears. I will not listen to your music, no matter how lovely it is. Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, a river of righteous living that will never run dry. —Amos 5:23,24, NLT, (The Lord God speaking to Amos)
Fair Trade Coffee is a movement whose goal is to guarantee a minimum price to coffee farmers, a price high enough to sustain them. The movement has its critics. Tinkering with supply and demand is risky. A price floor may have unintended consequences, perhaps harming growers instead of helping them. The UN’s ICO wants to solve the problem by increasing quality and promoting more consumption.
The only thing that seems certain is that people like Maria and Alberto are hurting, and they cannot survive without a better return for their labors. This is why so many young men and women are leaving their villages for the US, risking death in the Arizona desert for the possibility of higher wages.
The next time you’re sipping that mocha almond latte, picture Alberto and Maria picking those beans one by one. They are grateful to God for the rains and the coffee trees, and they trust God to provide for them through their labors. They don’t ask anything more than a fair wage in return for their work.
What is our responsibility to them before God?