Coffee Spirit
James Hayes-Bohanan , Ph.D.
Coffee Maven and Geographer
Bridgewater State College
UPDATED March 21, 2010

A geograher and his cafezinho
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In late November 2008, I was one of several members of my church who were asked to give a brief description of our spiritual journeys as part of a new, occasional series of such presentations on Sunday mornings. I did not intend to focus on coffee, but as the text below reveals, coffee has become integral to my spiritual life.

A Journey toward Gratitude

Presented at First Parish UU Bridgewater
November 30, 2008

What Would Jesus Brew?
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Since last Sunday, I have been contemplating how to describe my spiritual journey – where I have come from and where I am now. Perhaps the biggest difference is that I used to talk about my spirituality a lot, and these days I rarely do so. I grew up sharing my testimony as a regular part of worship. These days, spirituality is important to me, but it is not something I put into words very often – or very well.

Then a blast from my spiritual past hit me in the middle of class on Wednesday. My class was watching a film about Guatemala’s effort to come to terms with its violent past. The film mentioned Efraín Ríos Montt – the last of Guatemala’s dictators – who killed, disappeared, or displaced many thousands of people, and erased 400 Mayan villages from the face of the earth.

When I heard Montt’s name, I was reminded of the first time I heard it, three decades ago. In those days, going to church two or three times a week and living on a seminary campus the rest of the time was not enough for me: every Saturday night I took a bus to Kansas City Youth for Christ – to a weekly rally that attracted thousands of the city’s evangelical youth. It was at such a rally – during the heyday of Jerry Falwell – that I first heard of Ríos Montt. He had recently become a born-again Christian and a darling of the religious right in the United States. We were told what a miraculous thing this was, and how good for Guatemala. In reality, it was after his conversion that he committed his most heinous crimes, but his religious affiliation – along with his staunch anti-communism – gave him political cover. He remains unpunished to this day.

On Wednesday I tried to explain this contradiction to my students, but then I found myself struggling with the question of how I had gone from that spiritual place to the place I am now. Evangelical adulation of this monster reveals the ugliest side of a dogmatic religion: those who articulate the same dogma are part of the same tribe, to be defended regardless of how they actually live. For many years now I have recoiled at this tendency, and I must admit that I sometimes flinch at recitations of dogma in my new, more progressive faith, even if I agree with them.

This week’s evangelical flashback also caused me to think about what, if anything, I still carry with me from my born-again days. I have opposed the rigid doctrine for many years now, but I think I have moved beyond a wholesale rejection of my former spirituality. What has persisted? The most important parts, I think, are a deep concern for the well-being of others and a habit of living in a tight-knit community. The concern for others was once expressed as an obsession with saving them from damnation, but I really think this obsession was rooted more in the love of others than arrogance about my own rectitude. In charitable moments, I try to presume the same of the evangelicals I meet. The second part, living in a tight-knit community, was not found in the huge Saturday-night rallies, but at a series of small churches and student groups where I was able to serve and to grow. That memory is revived every Sunday morning here on School Street, and being part of this community is my most cherished spiritual practice.

Thinking back to Ríos Montt, today I feel much more connected to the victims of his crimes than I ever did to my former co-religionist. How that connection came about is part of the rest of my story, and it starts with a question about a pencil.

A decade ago, my friend and academic advisor convinced me to use his textbook in a course on environmental geography. The opening page of the book asks students to consider the pencil, and the variety of resources needed to bring it to the consumer. Over time, I changed the exercise to ask about a cup of coffee, and this has changed my life. Both the pencil and the coffee are examples of items we take for granted, but which connect us to communities and environments half a world away. The question started as an academic exercise about the sources of commodities and structures of trade, but it has led me to learn as much as I can about the people behind those connections, and to understand the real meaning of what UUs call the interdependent web of life. Last summer, it led our family to some of those Mayan communities that had been terrorized by Ríos Montt. Today they struggle to sell their coffee for a fair price, and we were invited to share what we’ve been learning from grower cooperatives in Nicaragua. While we were there, I was humbled by their attention to what I had to teach them, and their gratitude for our coming to listen to their stories. I was even more humbled that even as we were talking about the critical shortage of water in one village we visited, they brought out bottled water for us, so that we could continue to talk comfortably. I am against bottled water in general, but we had to accept this gift.

My learning about coffee has merged with another aspect of my spirituality that derives from repeated readings of Pirsig’s hippie classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I try to live in the present and to be mindful of quality. From this, we have developed a morning ritual of hand-grinding the coffee beans and carefully brewing a small batch. The process itself is a meditation, connecting purposeful action to quality in the cup. As we savor the coffee, we think about the farmers from which it came, and I swear that the coffee tastes best if it comes from a place where I know the farmers. I thank them not only for the care they put into their product, but also for their willingness to open their homes and communities to me and to my students. They accept us with open arms, even though we come from across enormous divides of privilege, history, and politics.

The connections that some of my students have made with the coffee farmers allow them, too, to reflect on the many ways – aside from coffee – that our lives are privileged. It calls many of them to service, and it leads them to share what they have learned with other students, who in turn are changing their lives.

Those of us who visit and learn from the farmers gain so much more than we give. Early in this process, I would have described my spiritual life today primarily in terms of connectedness. Now I would describe it primarily as an attitude of gratitude. The more people I meet and the more I learn of my own dependencies on people near and far, the more humbled and grateful I become.

Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan

Coffee Maven and Professor
Department of Geography -- Bridgewater State College
Bridgewater, Massachusetts USA / EEUU / EUA
Affiliated Scholar, Institute for Coffee Studies
Vanderbilt University
jhayesboh @

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