How Delicious Peace Came To Us
by Paul Katzeff, CEO
I was at my desk, it was late afternoon. The phone rang... “Hello, my name is Laura Wetzler” came the voice from the other end. That was the beginning of my and Thanksgiving Coffee Company’s involvement in this fascinating experience that has just begun to unfold.
It was 2004. The sky was blue but the sun was well on its way down over the Pacific creating that eerie orange glow when late afternoon begins to turn into early evening. It was “magic time,” or time for magic.
It turned out that Laura Wetzler was, and still is, the Ugandan Coordinator for an all volunteer Jewish NGO called Kulanu in Washington DC. She called to ask me if I would buy five sacks of coffee from a cooperative she was working with. I rolled my eyes and thought, “Another starry-eyed idealist who went to a poor country to build a school, discovered coffee in the midst of poverty and decided that it was the answer to all the community’s woes.”
Over the past 20 years I have fielded many such calls. Although my heart goes out to these volunteers, I explain to them that coffee is not bought under such novice circumstances. “There is a well-established infrastructure of exporters, brokers, importers,” I explained, “And of course, there are the issues of quality and price.”
I asked Ms. Wetzler if she had called any other roasters and she told me she had called over 50 but had sold nothing. “Everybody wants a sample to taste but I have none,” she told me. “I was just there but didn’t know I needed samples to offer.” I began to settle in to the conversation and asked her to tell me about the work of Kulanu. Being Jewish myself I thought it unusual for her to be working with Jews in Uganda. “Jews in Uganda? Tell me more!”
Laura told me about this community of black Bantu Jews that she has been working with since 2002. She helped them organize a coffee cooperative, become Fair Trade Certified™, and now, with their first crop sitting unsold in a Uganda warehouse, she was calling US coffee roasters trying to sell the coffee. She had a list, it was in alphabetical order, and when she got down to the letter T she called Thanksgiving Coffee and I picked up the phone. By the time she got to me she had been rejected 50 times.
The Jewish Bantus of Uganda caught my attention, but it was when she described the other two-thirds of the cooperative that my heart really began to pound. “There are Muslims and Christians in this coffee cooperative,” she continued. “They are all working together. It’s one community. The co-op president is Jewish, the vice-president is Christian, and the treasurer is Muslim. There are hundreds of families all together; they have one container to sell and soon this year’s crop will be coming. The people are desperate!” she exclaimed.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I was the recipient of this call because 50 coffee roasters heard this story and declined to purchase before tasting samples. They were focusing on the product so they missed the story. For me the story was inspiring at minimum. People of faith finding hope through coffee. Choosing cooperation in a world torn up by intolerance. I said, “OK, I’ll buy it.” “How many sacks do you want?” she asked. I could hear in her voice her plea, her compassion, her fear, her innocence, and her dedication, all born from what was much much more than the experience of the starry-eyed girl I had assumed she was when I first picked up the phone.
“I’ll buy it all,” I said. “All or nothing. I want the entire story. I don’t want any other coffee company to have a single bag. I want to bring this story to the world.”
Three weeks later I flew to Uganda to meet the co-op leaders and farmers. I tasted their coffee (it was delicious), signed a contract for 37,500 lbs, went to services on the Sabbath at the Abayudaya Jewish Community Temple and spent that afternoon meeting with people of three faiths who were using coffee to bring a better life. I returned home inspired and dedicated. On the plane, I remember thinking how 50 coffee roasters missed the significance of what these people had done. It was because of them that Thanksgiving Coffee got this opportunity to support what in our time could become one of the greatest stories ever told — and through the selling of the coffee, to strengthen and build a cooperative that could become a shining light of beauty for all to see and be inspired.
On July 12, 2005 the coffee arrived in the US after six weeks “on the water.” From that shipment, a sample was sent to us as soon as the boat docked. We “cupped it” and it is good, real good, and it fills my heart with hope.
Thanks to the years of work in Uganda by Laura Wetzler and Kulanu, one community of Jews, Christians and Muslims, in a small village in Africa have come into our presence. What we do with this gift is up to us. I say, “Let’s tell everybody and let’s toast ‘peace’ each morning over a cup of Mirembe Kawomera coffee.“