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A Simple Cup of Coffee

Have you ever stared at your morning coffee and considered just how much had to happen in order for it to exist? Probably not—it’s just a cup of coffee, right? In 1958, Leonard Read published an essay entitled, “I, Pencil,” in which an ordinary pencil gives a first person account of its “family tree.” In it, the author goes through the various materials used in its own making—wood, graphite, lacquer, resin, etc.—and describes at some length the labor, processes and even entire industries necessary to create something as seemingly simple as itself. Read’s essay is still celebrated today for the way it shows the miraculous potential and complexity of markets.

I remember reading this essay in college and being so fascinated with the incredible coordination inherent to markets that I, a pastor’s kid, changed my major from theological studies to economics. 15 years later, I find myself just as fascinated as I was back then but with a more developed understanding of the potential for both good and bad outcomes in the marketplace.

What does it mean to live Up & Over in the business world? One important thing to acknowledge is that the market itself is morally neutral but people acting within it are not. The consequences of market activity, whether good or bad, depend on the values brought by people in the work they do. Therefore, it’s up to us to bring the right values into the marketplace in order that God work through us to care for those in need.

A good example is my boss, Kevin, who started the small coffee company in San Francisco I now work for. His experiences buying coffee in Central America, East Africa and other parts of the world gave him an idea for how he could empower and invest in small, poor coffee farmers who were being overlooked and undervalued. He started his company with a commitment not just to buy directly from them, but to prioritize those with no prior access to the specialty market and to help them maximize the potential value of their farms. The results over the past seven years have been transformative for the families and communities of our sourcing partners even though the market itself still functions as it always has. All it took was one person acting on values that went against the status quo.

The economic devastation of COVID has certainly been felt in the coffee industry. In Honduras, the pandemic hit right at harvest time and producers weren’t able to find workers to pick the ripe coffee cherries, putting them at risk of losing their crop. In addition, many US-based roasters began backing out of buying commitments due to their cafes being closed. Small farmers who had worked for a full year in anticipation of a single pay day found themselves at risk of losing their entire incomes. Clearly this is a situation in which individuals with resources can act on behalf of the powerless. Even though we are a small company, we are taking a risk on behalf of these producers by increasing our buying commitment, leveraging our network to connect them to other buyers and selling their coffee through retail channels at a reduced price so they can still earn their full income for the year.

We also have a good example in the story of Joseph in Genesis 42-47. God used his being sold into slavery by his brothers as a means to position him to save his family and all of Israel later on during the famine. Notice that although Joseph was generous, it wasn’t simply charity that he used to provide for his family; the market was still operating. Joseph managed Egypt’s resources so well that he was able to provide food to starving people from all over the world at the same time that God was fulfilling his dream from years before.

What about you—what resources are at your disposal to help those facing disaster? Your work situation may not allow you the freedom to take on risky projects, but there may be other resources at your disposal through which you can provide for the powerless. The key is to learn to look for ways to bring godly values with you into the marketplace.

So, how about that morning coffee? The next time you stare at it, imagine how many ways there are to live Up & Over in difficult times. It may seem simple but you never know what might be at stake.