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Faith Connections for Fair Trade
By Christine Venzon
With gift baskets, cafés and coffeehouses, these parishes are working hard to put Fair Trade practices into action.


Commerce With a Cause
Revolution From the Pews
A Growth Industry
Reaping the Rewards
Learning the Stories
Web Resources

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.

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 chocolate bars.

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 conspicuous consumption?

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 livestock.

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 peoples' identity.

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 bring the U.S. cheap prices, and usually inferior goods, by paying unfair and even criminal wages."

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 making parish involvement a reality. It was a perfect storm of building relationships with justice, education and heart-wrenching conversion...occurring in many people at the same time."

In addition to providing information on how to host sales and fund-raisers, the following sites include partner producer profiles and links to catalogs of Fair Trade items:

• Catholic Relief Services
• Café Campesino
• Equal Exchange
• Café Justo
• Ten Thousand Villages (
• Friends of the Third World
• Global Exchange
• WHEAT: World Hunger Education, Advocacy & Training

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 programs.

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 countries."

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 going."

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 teaching."

"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 parish's mind.

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 justice."

Christine Venzon is a freelance writer from Peoria, Illinois.

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