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The Refuge Coffee Co. Story: Hope and Help in a Cup

The Refuge Coffee Co. Story Hope and Help in a Cup.jpg

I’m a happiness addict. Rejoicing with those who rejoice? I’m a pro at that. But weeping with those who weep? Nigh unto impossible. Heck, being bored or mildly unhappy with those who are bored or mildly unhappy is a stretch for me.

But over the years I’ve learned that real happiness is found in the most unexpected places. Jesus said the happiest people on earth are the poor in spirit, the persecuted, the mournful, the hungry, and the thirsty. Happier still are those who are merciful toward those people, who make peace for them.

By God’s grace alone, this pursuit of a different kind of happiness has set the trajectory of my life. Sure, I still balk at anything that smacks of delayed gratification, and I get distracted by the shiny prospect of immediate happiness. But letting Jesus define happiness has never steered me wrong. Ever. A few years ago, this pursuit led my husband and me to buy what we morbidly call our last house somewhere near the “widows, aliens, and orphans” in our city. At first, it was an idea without a definite plan. But eventually, we settled on Clarkston, a 1.6 square mile town on the edge of Atlanta. Clarkston is a U.N. designated refugee resettlement area where over half of the population are foreign born. Naturally, people ask us all the time, “What countries do the refugees come from?”

And we answer, “Just look at what’s going on in the world. Where there is war or oppression or persecution, that’s where our neighbors come from. Syria, the Congo, South Sudan, Nepal, Burma, Somalia, to name just a few places.”

Not only are there over 60 languages spoken and over 100 people groups represented in Clarkston, there is a rich mix of help-minded people, young and old, foreign and U.S. born, Christian and not-at-all, who moved here specifically because of the unique needs and benefits of a place that CNN has called “the most diverse square mile in the world.”

But letting Jesus define happiness has never steered me wrong.

A couple of years ago, just as I was beginning a non-profit called Refuge Coffee Co., I kind of passion-vomited about it on anyone who would listen and I told my dentist about what we were doing to train and employ refugees. When he asked me what prompted Refuge in the first place, I told him how we’d moved to Clarkston. How we’d come to love our neighbors, and how creating a business to serve them while serving coffee just made sense if we were to be a blessing in our context. He knew about Clarkston, mainly about the purported poverty and crime.

He asked, “Why on earth would you move there?” followed by the standard, “Where do the refugees come from?”

When I answered, he said, “Oh great. All the terrorists.” (You’d be surprised how common this perception is.)

I think I said something like, “No, refugees are the people who are running away from terrorists.”

Like my friend Amina, whose entire family, husband and ten children, were murdered before her very eyes by an unspecified terror group in Somalia. Or Mohamed, from Central African Republic, whose parents and siblings were killed at his home while he heard the gunfire from his school just down the street. He was 12. Or our friend Mamy who hid under the bodies of her family, then ran when the gunmen left her home in the Congo. Who found her brothers at a refugee camp in Uganda, but didn’t find out her mother still lived until she’d been here in the States over two years.

We started Refuge Coffee Co. to fill three gaps we saw here in the refugee community:

1. An opportunity gap. The jobless rate in Clarkston is double the national average, which leads to hopelessness.

2. A hospitality gap. 85% of immigrants to our country have never been inside an American home, which leads to loneliness.

3. An awareness gap. Most of Atlanta doesn’t know the U.N. has resettled up to 2,000 refugees here every year for the past three decades, which leads to alienation between Americans and refugees.

And we are doing our small part to fill those gaps by providing:

1.  Living wage jobs, holistic job training, coaching, and mentoring, which gives refugees hope for a better future.

2. A multi-ethnic gathering place where refugees mingle with local people, which fosters relationships.

3. Our trainees help us tell a more beautiful refugee story, opening people’s eyes to the vibrancy and resilience of most refugees.

We do all of this with two big red coffee trucks, a barista cart, and a “coffee shop” space (it’s an old garage) in the heart of Clarkston. I’m slowly learning that being obedient to the small dream God puts in your heart can have big consequences. Especially if He puts the dream in others’ hearts and they join in. And most especially if you keep love the main thing. Our highest hope is that Refuge will remain a clear expression of “love your neighbor” no matter how much we grow.

I’m writing this in our car on I-16 on the way home from a Refuge retreat with our team of trainees and support staff. We’ve been serving coffee since May 2015. Last night over dinner with these people I’ve come to love like family, we asked everyone to share one way that Refuge has been a blessing, either to them personally or to others.

Refugee Coffee Co.Ahmad, who came here from Syria less than a year ago, said, “Refuge has opened my eyes.”

We asked him what that meant. Yes, he said, we’ve opened his eyes to opportunities by training him in a skill, by teaching English and American work culture. But his eyes have been opened to the power of love, and—side note—he is beginning to discover more about Jesus as the source of that love. We sat at a table with many red Solo cups spread out on it. He picked up one of the cups, and said, “With Refuge, if I need one cup, I end up getting four or five. More than I need. Always more.”

I looked around the table at the people who have given him those cups. And I thought about the way he has, in turn, given cups back to us. Cups of love and care that are always full. Always more than enough.

I’m slowly learning that being obedient to the small dream God puts in your heart can have big consequences.

This morning I sat on the back porch of our rented beach house and read from my least-favorite book of the Bible (you guessed it, Job):

“The one who is at ease holds calamity in contempt” (Job 12:5, HCSB).

I thought about my dentist’s comments, but I thought mostly about how easily my happiness addiction—my own brand of “ease”—could have set a completely different trajectory for my life. If, that is, I’d defined happiness my way. If I’d done what feels so natural and kept my life insulated from any troubling hints of calamity. And I thought about the red Solo cups. So many of them. So full of so much real happiness.

Click here to see the video NBC Nightly News did to feature Refuge Coffee Co!


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Kitti thrives when making new friends with refugees, teaching them the art of coffee, and continuing to raise her tribe of kids and grandkids.

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