Contagion of Hope: COVID19 Reflections from Honduras

How do we gather the courage to carry on when fear and loss are felt all around us?  How do we take hold of hope and faith in the future when everything is falling apart and we’ve lost all sense of control and security? 

These are questions facing us everyday during this pandemic in which we have all heard the phrases “unprecedented times” and “uncertain times” over and over again.  This is certainly a grave new experience our generation has not encountered. But the threat of loss and lack of control are not “unprecedented” or “uncertain” for us. 

These challenges have always been with us. We need to reach out to find inspiration and faith that “everything falling apart” has never meant that all hope is lost.  In the 12th century, Saint Francis reached out to the poor and the sick, people who had the least to lose in his society. By connecting and identifying with them he found a freedom he had never imagined and became one of the most inspiring and fearless persons to ever walk the earth.

At Saint Frank, we are always striving to connect with and identify with our producer partners in remote coffee- growing villages throughout the world, in part to keep that inspiration and freedom alive.

A Conversation with Benjamin Paz

This week, our fourth of the San Francisco Shelter-in-Place, I spoke with Benjamin Paz on Instagram Live to discuss the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on our partners and the coffee supply stream in Honduras.  Benjamin is a long time friend of mine and Saint Frank, working with his family’s coffee exporting business in Honduras called Beneficio San Vicente. Benjamin works in virtually every capacity there, but his main work is supporting the individual producers for specialty coffee preparation and acting as a relational connector and mediator between producers and buyers whether they be small roasters or importers.  He also happens to be a producer himself. Saint Frank had the privilege of roasting his very first harvest, and we continues to offer that original planting every year. You can learn more about Benjamin and Honduras here.

Coffee Growing Communities 

Benjamin shared that COVID-19 has now made its way into one of the larger municipalities below in the foothills of Santa Barbara Mountain where the majority of our Honduras coffees are grown.  Some of the mountain villages like El Cedral where our Las Nieves is grown have blocked their own mountain roads to literally shelter their community in place.  Coffee farmers and communities in Honduras are experiencing the same fears and navigating the same crisis as we are, in a totally different context. 

Movement in the towns is limited to alternating segments of the population by ID number. These restrictions during the peak of their harvest can be devastating for larger farms dependent on workers who cannot travel while all producers are limited in access to banks and resources.  In these more isolated places, local communities are organizing to self-regulate and deliver food to those in need. Our own communications with some of our producers like Milton Castellon and David Lopez reveal a serious but motivated spirit among these close-knit communities that inspires us and motivates us together as a cross-cultural family and community.    

Specialty Coffee Vulnerability

The shut-downs and government orders here in the United States and other places where specialty coffee companies typically thrive are now threatening the livelihoods and economies of producers.  As many coffee businesses have either been forced or chosen to close their doors during the pandemic, their roasting production has suffered dramatically, having a dangerous impact on the specialty coffee supply stream. 

Many of Benjamin’s international customers are reducing their commitments or suspending their green coffee buying as their own sales suffer and the familiar fears of uncertainty naturally lead to conservation. This leads San Vicente into the uncertainty of where to sell these coffees and specialty producers to be concerned that after an entire year of preparation for their annual harvest they may have no buyer for their coffee.  Specialty coffee production requires more investment and care to produce exceptional coffees that speak of the place where they were grown. The cost of that production is higher than the prices paid for conventional coffee in the commodity market,: the very market that is thriving in grocery stores throughout the world right now. For more on the specialty market in relation to conventional or commodity coffee read here.

For some producers like Benjamin, the 2020 harvest had already presented challenges with strange ripening patterns and defects.  The farm I mentioned earlier is predicted to already lose 40% of its production to defects which will result later in limited supplies of Benjamin’s next Laguneta coffee release at Saint Frank but more notably a significant loss in revenue for Benjamin.  Coffee is agriculture before anything else and as such has always been subject to weather and environmental forces that cannot be controlled. Adding the abiding challenges of agriculture to a global virus pandemic with its own physical, social and economic fallout is potentially far worse than the fears we face.  There is no economic bail-out or small business stimulus for coffee farmers.  There is no unemployment benefit fund, only the land and the community of people around them.  What amazes me and Benjamin is that they have not lost their spirit or their hope.  

Hope is Contagious

During our conversation I took some questions from our viewers. Ben Carlson, founder of Long Miles Coffee Project in Burundi, asked Benjamin to share anything inspiring or hopeful he has seen or experienced during this time.  The first thing that Benjamin shared demonstrated exactly the kind of character that drew me to him in the beginning of our friendship and what drives our partnership today. 

Benjamin said that every day he received messages and calls from the producers on the mountain, sharing what they are doing and how they are picking and processing their coffees as their villages are blocked in and the threat of the pandemic is very real.  They continue to push forward and refuse to give up. Their enthusiasm for excellence and progress has not been diminished, and their hope and determination to produce world- quality coffee has not been extinguished- even though they are more vulnerable than ever.  This is true inspiration from people who have far less than we do in terms of wealth and supportive political and economic infrastructure. These are the kinds of interactions and identifications that moved Francis of Assisi to inspire a movement and life of freedom the like of which the world had never seen. 

As Benjamin was speaking, Julia Mayer of Dune Coffee Roasters commented, “Hope is Contagious!”  A powerful statement with much-needed wisdom for our time. Fear of loss and scarcity is as contagious as COVID-19 and can infect our entire emotional and mental system, just as the virus can infect and break down the very respiratory system that breathes life into our bodies.  Fear can break us down and isolate us into a mental and emotional prison far worse than a physical quarantine. 

When I noted Julia’s insightful comment to Benjamin he immediately replied that seeing the innovative efforts and relational work of teams like Dune Coffee and Saint Frank to serve their community further inspires him and San Vicente to support the producers and keep the work moving in any way possible however limited and disrupted. 

Contagions of Faith and Resilience

We need a contagion of hope to counter fear and isolation.  We need a contagion of innovation and resilience, however grand or minor the steps, to keep the oxygen flowing into our lungs and filling our minds and bodies with life.  Every story and moment of hope from real people and real places with which we have direct or indirect relations will build the contagion we need to combat the biological coronavirus and the social and emotional virus of fear and scarcity. 

As we saw the early symptoms of the pandemic in San Francisco we began adapting our service and distribution well before the first United States shelter-in-place went into effect.  Our connection to our producers, our team, and our customers kept moving and innovating in a lean and flexible mentality that I believe is inspired by the kind of life and community we want to lead, the kind I want to believe in, modeled by Saint Francis and his followers. They pursued humility and love while they curiously admired the benefits of poverty when having nothing to lose made you able to live freely for others, always having everything to gain. 

Like them, we can reach out to others like Benjamin and Julia and lean into the hope and faith that we can pass through valleys of shadow and death.  Waiting and looking back toward times that were “normal” will not build our faith unless we are looking back to stories of change and renewal through trial.

Our producer friends like Benjamin and Beneficio San Vicente can lead us from their position of vulnerability to not lose hope and believe that we can respond to any challenge that confronts us.  Julia and Dune Coffee’s resilience can inspire us to believe that we can pivot and adapt with hope that our fate is not only doom and gloom but there is hope for whatever is revealed on the other side.  No, things will not be the same and that is okay. 

How we respond and the capacity we expand or ignore within us for hope and faith during a trial like this will either grow us or diminish us.  We are choosing to walk through this valley fearing no evil come what may. 

Every time we brew or enjoy a coffee from these inspiring producers we are connected to them and take courage to keep moving and we invite you into these stories with us.  There have been so many chapters within our own story shared with our partners that have expanded that hope capacity and even now we see it and feel it real time. I’m looking forward to sharing these stories inviting us all to spread the contagion of hope throughout the world together.