A parishioner at
Queenship of Mary
Parish in Plainsboro,
New Jersey, picks
up some bags of Fair
Trade coffee, which the
parish sells every first
and third Sunday of
the month after Mass.
PHOTO COURTESY OF KATHLEEN OGLE/THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT
YOU MIGHT expect activist
tendencies from a group
called the Social Justice
Ministry. The group at Our
Lady of the Holy Rosary
Church in Cutler Bay, Florida, doesn't
disappoint. Every Christmas gift basket
they sell threatens the foundations of
American commerce. It's also a tasteful
assortment of Earl Grey tea, peach and
ginger jam, and strawberry-white
On the other hand, the Women's
Guild at St. Paul's Church in Phoenix,
Arizona, doesn't fit the picture of
rabble-rousers. Yet they've been fostering
revolution, too, for the last three
years, once a month after Sunday Mass.
At Christmas, customers at their Holiday
Boutique support their cause, buying
handmade cards made with pressed,
dried flowers and wall decorations hammered
from recycled oil drums.
And what about the youth group at
Prince of Peace Church in Ormond
Beach, Florida? Is their annual one-night
coffeehouse, complete with
steaming cups of java and music by
Christian artists, actually a stand against
The spirit is astir even at the fellowship
hour at Queenship of Mary Church
in Plainsboro, New Jersey. Every first
and third Sunday of the month after
Mass, parishioners chat over (biodegradable)
cups of Love Buzz and Bright Day,
sweetened with organic sugar. They buy
bags of the stuff to take home, sowing
seeds of social agitation.
Those scenarios are not rejected plots
for a movie. They're real examples of
community-building, construction projects
that stretch beyond parish and
even national borders. These parishes
practice solidarity with small farmers
and skilled artisans through Fair Trade.
Commerce With a Cause
With modern technology and fiercely
competitive free markets, developed
nations like the United States are awash
in a sea of stuff. Consumers can be
blinded to the impact of their choices
by geographic distance, the lure of low
prices and a spiderweb of buyers and
sellers between them and the people
who produce the bounty. How many
coffee drinkers realize that the $8 they
pay for a can of decaf coffee trickles
down to 30 cents for the farmer who
grows the coffee beans?
The story is the same for other goods
imported from developing nations,
from beaded handbags to baking cocoa.
The scenes call to mind the United
States of a century ago. Factory workers
endure sweatshop conditions for
starvation wages. Sharecropping becomes
a family legacy as farmers work
land they will never own. Artisans
accept a pittance from middlemen
("coyotes"), who sell the items cheaply,
yet still at a profit. Native habitats are
destroyed to raise non-native crops or
Fair Trade is a business model that
turns those conventions of commerce
on their head. Profits are realized not
only in dollars, pesos or rupees, but
also in intangibles like dignity and
hope for the future. It's a philosophy as
old as the Old Testament prophet Isaiah,
who describes "a day acceptable to
the Lord...releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed" (58:5-6).
The principles of Fair Trade include:
Economic self-determination. Producers
form cooperatives or consortiums, giving
them the economic bargaining
power that unions provide in the industrialized
world. Members set their own
price to ensure a just wage. They establish
their own banks and issue low-interest
loans, helping to break the cycle of poverty by allowing producers
to get out of debt.
Community improvement. Many cooperatives
run schools and health-care
clinics that serve the entire village.
Environmental stewardship. Fair Trade
goods are produced by native plants.
Besides coffee (the second most widely
traded item globally, after oil), that
includes chocolate from cacao trees,
purses made from jute and jewelry
boxes carved from soapstone. Thus,
Fair Trade rewards environmental protection.
Respect for culture. Hand in hand with
environmental conservation is cultural
preservation. Many goods are produced
using traditional methods as well as
materials, thus sustaining indigenous
Fair Trade businesses at every level,
from grower to importer to retailer,
agree to abide by these standards. Certifying
agencies like the Fair Trade Federation
and the World Fair Trade
Organization verify their compliance.
Each parish's call to action came
through different means. At Queenship
of Mary, inspiration took the form
of a $1,000 seed grant from a neighboring
parish that already had an established
program. (The parish is in the
Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey, something
of a hotbed of Fair Trade activity.)
Mike Buckler, director of Youth and
Young Adult Ministry at Prince of Peace
Church, got the idea for the Fair Trade
Café from a similar event at an Indiana
high school. Holy Rosary's Linda
Coughlin learned about Fair Trade as
part of her self-education on social justice
and Church teaching.
"I didn't need much convincing that
it was worth doing," she says. "It
seemed like the right way of doing business.
The more I learned about it, the
more I thought it was something our
Social Justice Ministry should pursue."
Debbie DiCarlo, who coordinates the
Holiday Boutique at St. Paul's, describes
an awakening akin to that of the
parish's patron. A few years back she
attended an event put on by WHEAT
(World Hunger Education, Advocacy
& Training), an anti-hunger advocacy
group headquartered in Phoenix.
"I was convinced about the importance
of using consumer dollars in a
fair-trade economy as opposed to a free-trade
one when I became familiar with
stories of the many people and communities
suffering huge, devastating
losses," she says. This inequity is due to
"large corporations, wielding their
quantity buying power...to bring the
U.S. cheap prices, and usually inferior
goods, by paying unfair and even criminal
Debbie organized a consciousness-raising
shopping day for St. Paul's at the
WHEAT store. After that, "I invited the
parish to as many events as I could."
She also found fertile soil in members
of the parish's JustFaith group, a program
of education and immersion in
the Church's teaching on social justice.
They were "really interested...in
making parish involvement a reality. It
was a perfect storm of building relationships
with justice, education and
in many people at the same time."
The nuts and bolts of a Fair Trade sale are similar to other consignment deals.
Many parishes order from the CRS
Work of Human Hands catalog. St.
Paul's also buys from WHEAT. Queenship
of Mary gets coffee and chocolates
from Equal Exchange. Prince of
Peace patronizes Café Campesino, an
Americus, Georgia, coffee roaster.
Parishes keep a percentage of the proceeds.
The rest, along with any unsold
merchandise (excluding foods), is
returned to the distributor. Mirroring
the international trend, coffee and
chocolate bars are the most popular
items, but handcrafts sell well, too.
A successful Fair Trade sale and campaign
can benefit from the combined
efforts of parish and diocesan resources.
Religious-education students work the
register during Queenship of Mary's
fellowship hour. St. Paul's sales force
includes graduates of JustFaith. The
Knights of Columbus provide a "solidarity
dinner" of rice and beans at
Prince of Peace's Fair Trade Café; the
Catholic Women's League helps with
the sales. CRS has directors in many
dioceses to help educate parishioners on
Catholic social teaching and implement
The success these parishes have realized
within a few short years would have a
CEO's eyes popping. Holy Rosary's program
began with Christmas 2004.
Linda Coughlin recalls, "We purchased
Fair Trade items and packaged
them together in beautiful Christmas
gift baskets to sell as alternative-type
Christmas gifts. That first year, we struggled
to sell 25 baskets. The second year,
2005, we sold 50 gift baskets, and 75 the
third year. After the great Christmas
basket sale in 2006, we decided to start
selling the individual products one
weekend a month."
Mike Buckler describes the evolution
of Prince of Peace's Fair Trade Café:
"Our first café three years ago was small,
with a local band and not a lot of merchandise.
The whole thing took place
in our parish hall with merchandise tables, fresh-brewed coffee, presentations
on how Fair Trade works and the
concert on stage in the hall.
"The second year we brought in
music artist Steve Angrisano. He performed
in the church after the café
portion of the night. That year we had
more than double the attendance,
along with more speakers and presentations
about Catholic social teaching
and Fair Trade.
"[In 2008], we sold a lot more merchandise,
had more than twice as many
people as the previous year, included
more interesting and dynamic speakers
who had personal stories of their conversion
to buying Fair Trade, how it has
impacted them personally, how it has
impacted the folks whom CRS supports."
Success isn't a simple matter of hanging
out an "open for business" sign,
however. It helps to have an affluent
parish, as Debbie DiCarlo describes St.
Paul's in Phoenix. On the other hand,
for Holy Rosary's ethnically mixed community,
buying Fair Trade is literally
buying from home.
"Plus," says Linda Coughlin, "they
understand the poverty in developing
Leadership and commitment are
essential, says Coughlin. "There is a lot
of behind-the-scenes work in ordering
and managing the inventory and planning
work that needs to be done. It is
a time-consuming ministry so you need
to have someone who understands and
is passionate about Fair Trade to keep it
In keeping with the Fair Trade philosophy,
profits from sales are reinvested
in the "business" or donated to help
others marginalized by society. Holy
Rosary's sales buy about $2,500 worth
of food for the parish food pantry each
year. St. Paul's sales help fund a Habitat
for Humanity project and sent teens
on a mission trip to El Salvador. At
Queenship of Mary, 20 percent of the
proceeds go to the St. Vincent de Paul
Society. In Christmas 2007, sales of 125
Fair Trade gift baskets enriched the society's
coffers by $1,000.
All agree, however, that it's not the
money, it's the message. Prince of Peace's last Fair Trade Café actually lost
money due to the cost of putting on
the concert, yet Mike Buckler calls it
"our best café yet....Over 1,000 people
learned in two days' time about CRS,
Café Campesino Coffee, the Fair Trade
process, why Catholics should support
Fair Trade, as well as the overarching
structure of our Church's social
"We offer products for sale as an
awareness raiser, not a fund-raiser,"
echoes Queenship of Mary's Regina Finn,
with the result that "many parishioners
have requested that their local coffeehouses
and markets provide them."
Relationships are at the heart of Fair
Trade, so it's no surprise that these
parish programs have created relationships
that cross typical business parameter
boundaries. Queenship of Mary
has a sister parish in Guatemala, so
economic justice is never far from the
Debbie DiCarlo traveled to Mexico
and El Salvador and "witnessed firsthand
the devastation that NAFTA and
CAFTA have caused." She also visited
the coffee-growing cooperative Café
Justo, a contrastingly "positive story"
that she deemed "remarkable."
Mike Buckler took the Prince of Peace
youth group for a weekend service
retreat to Americus, Georgia. They met
with the staff and discussed the mission
of Café Campesino, and put in a morning
at the Christian community and
working farm, Koinonia, also in Americus.
Their chore of clearing sticks and
ferreting out pecans hidden in gullies
gave them a taste of the daily life of
many farmers in developing nations.
Through Fair Trade, some parishioners
have found agreement on a
contentious issue: illegal immigration.
"Our community is much divided on
the immigration issue," says St. Paul's
Debbie DiCarlo. However, "no matter
what an individual may feel about...the presence of the undocumented,
everyone agrees that providing families
with an opportunity to live in their
own countries with economic dignity
is a win-win situation."
The sales have produced at least one
new disciple as well. St. Paul volunteer
coordinator Leonore Martinez recounts
the story behind the sale of some polished,
hand-painted stones from Vietnam.
The stones came with a story card
explaining that the business began as a
ministry to orphaned children of American
servicemen and Vietnamese
women who were abandoned by their
parents and shunned by society because
of their mixed heritage.
"One customer was so touched by
this story that he bought many of
the stones. He planned to use them as
gifts and was anxious to get a story
card for each stone to share this story
with the recipients. He became an
ambassador for Fair Trade and for social