The methods of the Great Commission change over time, but the heart remains the same: shine the Light of Christ in the darkness to transform brokenness into healing and hope.
In the Mexican region of Sierra Norte de Puebla, the vehicle for transformation is a coffee bean.
A Different Kind of Mission
Doug Cooper was brewing a pot of Peruvian coffee back in the mid-2000s the same week his son was on a mission trip to help build an orphanage in Peru. As he sipped his brew, Doug wondered, what if we could do something to address poverty and incentive self-sustaining practices so these mission trips would not be necessary? If the coffee farmers of Peru could earn a better price for their coffee, “We could help a community make an impact in a sustainable way by helping to boost their economy.”
Doug began studying the communities that grew coffee. His plan was to start buying coffee directly from farmers at a higher price to sell in America. A friend introduced Doug to Jaime (pronounced HI-May), thinking he might have connections to Mexico that could serve as a starting point for Doug. Jaime was originally from Mexico but has been living in Cleveland for almost 30 years now. He connected Doug to Chicontla, a village in the Sierra Norte.
Best Laid Plans, Meet Poverty
Doug faced a rude awakening upon settling on helping Chicontla. Poverty in the community was so widespread that just buying their beans in their current condition wasn’t a sufficient enough plan. The farmers desperately wanted Doug to buy their coffee, but the main problem was the low quality of their coffee.
“They didn’t have the money to do what they needed to make good coffee. My whole philosophy fell apart,” Doug confessed. “While it seemed like a low, it was the humility we needed to gain credibility and realize we needed to be attune to God’s timing and wisdom.”
The farmers had been burnt by outsiders like Doug before. “There were both churches and coffee people who said they were going to start a church or help do coffee, and when their expectations weren’t met, they left.” There was so much work to do before the coffee would be adequate for consumption standards needed for the original plan to work. In the meantime, the baseline poverty and its effects in the area had to be addressed.
Hence, the nonprofit, Coffee Growing Community (CGC), was born.
Slow and Steady Progress toward Real, Sustainable Change
The Sierra Norte region ranked #1 for both teen pregnancies and teen suicides throughout Mexico. “They kept a notebook of pictures of kids who had committed suicide,” Doug shared. “We wept over those pictures.” Local pastors in the area wanted to, but didn’t know how to help. Many local children grow up wanting an escape from this environment, and which has led to heartbreak in the community for those who and those who stay..
The saying goes, give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. “But sometimes you just need to hand the man a fish,” Doug said.
While CGC began to address some of the community’s needs, encouraging local coffee farmers to use different methods proved to be a unique challenge. The coffee industry was the very backbone of sustainable work in the community; without it, no real, lasting change could come. The farmers had been growing coffee the same way for generations.
“It took about three years to gently convince them their coffee wasn’t good,” Doug said. “We had a meeting where they basically yelled at us, ‘You have to buy our coffee!’”
“We had to say, ‘We’re not going to buy your coffee, I’m so sorry.’” Doug and Juarez, Doug’s first point-of-contact in the Sierra Norte, told the farmers. After relaying this news, they left the farmers to talk among themselves, and they didn’t know what was going to happen.
A couple of hours later, Doug and Juarez returned. The farmers turned to the two of them and said, “We agree. We have to make some big changes.”
Transforming the Economy from the Ground Up
In the last decade, coffee in Latin America has been ravaged by a blight called la roya, or coffee rust, a mold that attacks the leaves of coffee plants and burns them out, ruining the taste of the coffee. There’s no cure for the blight. Once it strikes, most farmers can’t bounce back.
Donations through the CGC have replaced a half million coffee plants with plants that are more blight-resistant. CGC has helped the farmers buy and implement processing equipment and learn new practices for inspecting and processing their coffee. The community’s farmers are now able to sell their coffee at a higher price.
Once you’ve taught a man to fish, you want him to do more than just feed himself. You’d like him to feed others, too. If a community is going to experience real and lasting change, you need to do more. Doug said, “We can out of good work create wealth, but if that wealth is used to build bigger houses or buy drugs and alcohol, it’s squandered away. If it’s stewarded well, it has tendrils into the whole economy of the region. You start to see everything thrive.”
This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of CGC’s work. How do you teach coffee farmers to become stewards of their newly found wealth?
“We were placed in a position of teaching people to be stewards and leaders, when all they thought they were was coffee farmers.”
What a Transforming Community Looks Like
Much has changed in the 11 years since CGC arrived in the Sierra Norte. CGC was able to provide facilities in half a dozen communities so that 500-600 children could receive social, spiritual, and physical nurturing through Compassion International. They’ve funded math programs and sports programs within the schools and helped the community start a program for both challenged and gifted students, which kept them going to school every day.
Six students had their college educations fully funded through CGC. “They have to come back and spend at least two years in the Sierra Norte and apply that education to their villages,” said Doug. “In a place in Mexico where witchcraft and shamanism is still being practiced, we have a young woman who has gone back to her area and is practicing law there.”
Doug used to travel multiple times a year to the Sierra Norte, but because of COVID, it’s been over a year since he’s been back. Right now, the coffee farmers are testing a process they researched on their own, called carbonic maceration. They send him videos. “I’m so proud and surprised at how far we’ve come – and it’s been them! They are going out and learning and they are curious now. They get it.”
CGC’s vision is to replicate the work accomplished in the Sierra Norte in other coffee growing regions around the world. Visit https://www.coffeegrowingcommunity.org/ to learn more about Coffee Growing Community.