By Agata Rita Borracci* - Venice
A group of Fidei donum missionaries from Italy ministering in Mary Queen of Peace parish in Chae Hom in the north of Thailand, created a project for the cultivation and sale of coffee. This project is special, not only in terms of the quality of the product, but also because all profits go to providing scholarships for children, to training local villagers to cultivate sustainable crops and towards the general improvement of their living conditions. Founded more than ten years ago, this parish’s pastoral outreach had adopted the fundamental values expressed by Pope Francis in the Encyclical Laudato si’ prior to its publication.
The mission’s origins
Belonging to the diocese of Chiang Mai, the mission began in Chae Hom out of the desire to form a missionary collaboration among the dioceses in the northern Italian "Triveneto" Ecclesiastical Region. This desire was first expressed in April 1990 during a meeting in Aquileia (Udine). A few months later, in December of that same year, that intuition was confirmed through the publication of Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical Redemptoris Missio. In it, the Pope indicated that the continent of Asia should be preferred among the territories to be chosen for mission.
Seven years later, Fathers Pietro Melotto and Gabriele Gastaldello, priests from the Diocese of Vicenza, began their pastoral service in Chae Hom. They were accompanied by the Bishop of Padua, Antonio Mattiazzo. Fathers Bruno Rossi and Lorenzo Biasion, priests of the Diocese of Padua, later joined them in 1999. After four years, another priest from the Diocese of Verona, Father Giuseppe Berti, joined them as well. The group from Triveneto was then completed with the arrival of Xaverian Sisters, a community of Sisters of Charity of Saint Jeanne-Antide Thouret and, between 2008 and 2010, the arrivals of Father Attilio De Battisti and Raffaele Sandonà from the Diocese of Padua, and Father Bruno Soppelsa from the Diocese of Belluno.
The parish of Mary Queen of Peace was officially established in Chae Hom on 1 May 2000. Its territory encompasses 40 villages scattered throughout a mountainous region covering over 3,000 km2. Their pastoral care includes people who belong to a large variety of ethnic groups: Akha, Lahu, Karen, Mian, Isan, Lisu, Hmong, each of which maintains their own culture, language and traditions.
The parish was built over a pre-existing structure, both in terms of the physical building as well as its pastoral ministry which was initially in the hands of PIME missionaries whose focus had been offering spiritual and material assistance to the small communities originally from China, Myanmar and Laos. Christians represent about 1% of a population of 120,000.
The first needs the missionaries had to address from the center created around Mary Queen of Peace parish was that of offering access to schooling to the children and young people living in the villages. Broken paths between mountains and lower country, the rainy season and the absence of professionals had deprived the young people for a long time of the opportunity of pursuing any type of education. Thus, 4 educational centers were born where hundreds of children from more than 40 villages and 7 different tribes found a point of reference and hospitality.
“Only 2 are still active to this day”, explains the pastor, Father Bruno Rossi. “This is a sign that the conditions of reaching the schools autonomously have improved”. A good part of the parish’s activities also consists in providing spiritual assistance in the villages and the formation of local catechists which has allowed the missionaries to reach the people coming from different tribes, cultures, languages and traditions.
Only .5% of Thailand’s population is Catholic. Most of the people are Buddhist. This reality is fragmented even further in these local tribes. “Our parish”, Father Bruno continues, “is closely connected with the services offered to minors in the educational centers and vice versa. The first thing we consider when someone comes to us is the need, rather than what group they belong to. We are all God’s children. So, in our daily interaction, we try to help and love everyone, without conditions. Our evangelization efforts, then, contain a clear proposal, that everyone can see. Those who wish to respond are free to do so, perhaps beginning with questions that have arisen by meeting our community”.
A response to pollution
A report by the Chicago-based Air Quality Life Index published in 2019 revealed that life-expectancy has been reduced by a couple of years due to atmospheric pollution. It also revealed that for a few days during the monitoring period, Chiang Mai was the most polluted city in the world, far exceeding international standards set for maximum levels of pollution.
One of the main factors contributing to these elevated levels is the practice of deburring – the combustion of agricultural residues to increase fertility and prepare the soil for the next season – used primarily in the cultivation of corn. In addition, the use of spray pesticides and also contributes to pollution especially during the rainy seasons when these chemicals flow into local waterways.
Those who frequent Mary Queen of Peace parish in Chae Hom suffer the consequences of these practices. “When the faithful approach the altar to receive the Eucharist”, explains Father Bruno Rossi, “we have noticed that their hands are covered with red dust, a residue of pesticides. That was the turning point for us: we realized that were placing the Body of Christ into wounded hands, a real and true life-giving action that revealed signs of death”.
The missionaries, therefore, suggested that the coffee plantations be extended from the mountainous areas of the territory to the hill country downstream. Father Bruno recounts that the idea of initiating organic farming arose when some of the beans grown by the families of students residing in the parish were tasted. The product was high quality, but the roasting procedures used in the area did not create the same aroma the missionaries were used to in their native country. Thus, with the arrival of the first roasting machine in 2012, and then making other improvements, they began both the organic production of coffee and a marketing process. These enhanced both the quality of the product and the quality of life for those living in the area. The sale of the coffee at competitive prices permitted the restoration of dignity to the farmers living in the villages of Chae Hom, as well as the creation of scholarships for students. In addition, the activity is regulated by the non-profit “Laudato si’ social enterprise”, created with the objective of contributing to the common good, in full compliance with the law and state regulations, as well as the values inspired by Pope Francis’s 2015 Encyclical.
Laudato si’ forerunners
The production of “Bruno's Coffee” began more than ten years ago, even before the publication of Laudato si’. However, the principles that inspired the missionaries’ course of action, and that of their collaborators, is in complete harmony with Pope Francis’s words found in the document to guide the care of our common home. “We tried to take into consideration both work and rest”, Father Rossi explains, “as well as the community’s desire to remain healthy within a safe environment. We also tried to take care of our common home, respecting nature and harmonizing our work with it. This is a need that comes from deep within, an attentiveness that brings with it values that are fully shared even in the Asian culture. We found this orientation that has become normal for us systematically described in Pope Francis’s Encyclical: he gave voice to and provided further motivation for our work. For us Christians, nature can be an important vehicle even for drawing near to God, as Saint Francis taught us and which Laudato si’ reiterates. Nature offers us sustenance and we must learn to respect it in order to facilitate a virtuous circle”.
Jokingly, Father Bruno even compares his parishioners to coffee beans – each one is different from the others, each has his or her own unique and unrepeatable story. It is the roasting that makes the difference. That is, the capacity of bringing out the best in everyone, just like good teachers do with their students. “We produce, package and ship about 800 kg of roasted coffee per month throughout Thailand. The largest orders come generally from hotels and from curious tourists who wants to taste Italian-roasted coffee”, the pastor relates. “The pandemic has created a lot of difficulties connected to the lack of tourists. But this has not halted the project. Instead, we are encouraging the cultivation of native crops of tea and are following a recently launched project involving the cultivation and processing of cacao which is easily grown even in the plains, thus offering sustenance to the parishioners living there who cannot cultivate coffee”.
*Cube Radio - Salesian University Institute of Venice and Verona