When a Seattle friend of mine encountered a rainy day in Georgia, a soggy and bored local asked her, what in the world d’y’all do for nine months out of the year back in Seattle? The answer was simple: drink coffee. What else?
Seattle’s coffee culture is a point of pride for many, and why shouldn’t it be? This rich, earthy nectar not only sustains body and soul, it’s used as a vehicle for social and spiritual connection. No matter the context, coffee brings people together.
This rich, earthy nectar not only sustains body and soul, it’s used as a vehicle for social and spiritual connection. No matter the context, coffee brings people together.
Tierra Nueva, a faith-based community development organization, exists to serve the immigrants, migrant workers, gang members, and inmates of the Skagit Valley. Pastoral staff lead Bible studies in jails, serve as chaplains, advocate for immigrants, create safe spaces to live free from addiction and violence, and for the past few years, roast coffee.
Leaving jail, a gang, addiction—or any combination of the three—is the start of a new life. And Tierra Nueva’s mission is to be there throughout all of it.
Roasting coffee isn’t just an opportunity to enter the marketplace. It isn’t just about the extra income. Really, it’s an opportunity for former inmates to spend time together, gain skills, and participate in discipleship. The reason it fits so naturally into Tierra Nueva’s mission is that it’s a ministry that connects people across regions, cultures and backgrounds. Former inmates who work in the roasting business connect not only with each other, but also to the work of the grower and the relationships of the consumers who come together for that perfectly roasted cup.
Omi has been a production assistant in Tierra Nueva’s roasting business off and on for the past several years. He explains that there is a distinct theology of coffee and references John the Baptist, who says in Matthew, chapter 3:
I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (NRSV)
It’s a fair judgment to say that if he’d ever had some, John would have referred to coffee instead of wheat. As it stands, it’s safe to say that he had not.
As Omi described the roasting process, he explained how the beans are representative of us—Christ’s followers. The beans go into the roaster, small, green, and hard. As they’re heated by flame and tumble together, you can hear them crackle as they expand beyond their hard outer shells. The chaff falls away and the dark brown bean, now about twice it’s original size, is left. “The raw beans are our hard hearts. The heat is the Holy Spirit,” Omi says. “The cracking sound you hear as the bean expands happens more than once in the roasting process, and that’s symbolic of God’s on-going work in us. We don’t find faith, grow one time, and then are done forever. It happens again and again.”
“The cracking sound you hear as the bean expands happens more than once in the roasting process, and that’s symbolic of God’s on-going work in us. We don’t find faith, grow one time, and then are done forever. It happens again and again.”
Chris, one of the founders of what is now Underground Coffee, highlights the role that friction plays in the process: “the refinement of the Holy Spirit happens best as we get mixed up in community, our lives rubbing up against one another.”
Officially, communion happens while we sit in rows and take the bread and cup, but gathering for conversation over coffee—whether in the church fellowship hall, a coffee shop, a kitchen, or for a walk around Green Lake—actually very closely resembles the setting where Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” It’s about story telling, savoring, and communing.
“This cup connects me to the grower, the marginalized, and the church. That’s communion.”
The premise of Underground goes beyond bringing people together over a pair of cups; it’s about bringing people together across space and time. Holding a cup of fresh-brewed coffee, Chris says, “This cup connects me to the grower, the marginalized, and the church. That’s communion.”
The beans are grown in Honduras on a farm owned by Tierra Nueva and cultivated by pastor-farmer Ángel David Calix and his team. They are then shipped to Zach, the head roaster at Tierra Nueva and his team of production assistance in Skagit Valley.
Production assistants are guys who are looking for more than a job. These guys are in transition; they’re looking for skills, discipleship, and advocacy. Zach, Omi, and their colleagues are all former inmates and gang members who have started over. They’re also the bridge connecting their neighbors to the growers in Honduras.
Underground Coffee is one of three parts to Tierra Nueva’s New Earth Works, social business projects that create jobs and income for local folks and Tierra Nueva. Veggies, fresh, home-made bread, and coffee are the triad of New Earth Works and are primarily distributed through their community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscription program. Subscribers pick up their weekly order at local churches on Sundays. It’s no accident that folks gather up their groceries on the way out of worship, because worship isn’t over after the benediction. It continues at the dinner table, in the break room at the office, and of course, over coffee. And so New Earth Works’ customers leave the church building equipped with ingredients to continue worship.
Whenever a new shipment of beans arrives, Zach begins a ritual. Since every harvest is unique, he roasts about 20 batches, adjusting time and temperature for each, and then hosts a cupping: inviting colleagues to sample a cup of each batch to determine precisely the right process for this new shipment.
We all have our own faith journey where God is working out our stuff with us, through that heat of the Spirit and the closeness of community.
Omi rightly points out once again that we are not so different from the beans. We all have our own faith journey where God is working out our stuff with us, through that heat of the Spirit and the closeness of community. Not every bean will be roasted the same way, but each comes through the process in all its life-giving, delicious glory. To learn more about Tierra Nueva and New Earth Works, visit tierra-nueva.org.