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Holy Joe's: A Taste of Home and Comfort for Servicemembers Overseas

Approaching its Fifth Anniversary, the Ministry of First Congregational Church UCC in Wallingford Now Supports Over 75 Chaplains Around the World

WALLINGFORD (02/22/2011) -- On Pentecost Sunday in 2006, worshipers at the First Congregational Church UCC learned of a need at a Baghdad airbase they'd never heard before. The base chaplain there had obtained some coffee urns, to use in creating a small cafe where servicepeople could relax, find companionship with each other, and find spiritual support in a comfortable setting. Tom Jastermsky got inspired, and a new ministry was born.

Within days Jastermsky, a deacon of the church at the time, had called some of his favorite coffee producers, including Green Mountain Coffee and New England Coffee, and was overwhelmed with their prompt and generous response. The chaplains' gratitude further moved him to extend the effort. Seeking UCC chaplains in the military, he called the national offices of the United Church of Christ to speak with the Rev. John Gundlach, and in the course of an afternoon's conversations found yet another source of coffee in the UCC Coffee Project Equal Exchange program, which supports sustainable agriculture and fair compensation for coffee farmers. UCC congregations have the ability to designate part of their Equal Exchange purchases for Holy Joe's gifts to chaplaincy programs overseas.

Holy Joe's Cafes, which take their name from a Civil War era nickname for military chaplains, combine the solace of a casual, homely atmosphere with the presence of spiritual support for service members. In 2007 Captain Jeff Smith told the church in a letter of thanks, "My hope is to provide a place where they can come and get some coffee, tea, hot cocoa, treats, and be reminded of God's love for them."

"Multiple things: A lot of counseling gets done there," says Jastermsky, "We have chaplains who say, 'I had fifteen, eighteen a couple weeks ago at our chapel service; now we have seventy-five to eighty.' They come for a cup of coffee, and they'll stay for other programs."

Early on, a member of the church made a critical contribution to the ministry. Carol Wallace, President and CEO of Cooper Atkins, a manufacturer of time and temperature controls for food service, offered the company's loading dock facility when she learned that Green Mountain had donated an entire container-load. "It would be better to have it dropped off at our loading dock than dropped at the church parking lot and then have us repack it from there," she said.

"We now have a designated area in our warehouse for the coffee as it comes in," and the company also donates staff time for handling, repacking, and shipping out to the over 75 locations currently served by Holy Joe's. A poster of photos from the Holy Joe's chaplains' coffeehouses has pride of place on the warehouse office wall.

The ministry's expansion in less than five years has been tremendous. Jastermsky and Wallace estimate that they have received and distributed 18 tons of coffee in the last year: enough to serve 3.6 million cups. "Just a few months ago, we had a chaplain's assistant at the Air Force hospital in Bilad, Iraq," speak at the church and to Cooper Atkins employees, Jastermsky said. His account of the power of that ministry of presence was very moving. Other chaplains have visited the church -- on Memorial Day and Veterans Day -- to strengthen the sense of connection that has been a core of the program.

Jastermsky estimates that two thirds of UCC churches in the nation have supported Holy Joe's with donations of cash and coffee. A very small church in Alabama, with weekly attendance of about 35 worshipers, sends a check every month. Tea, coffeemakers, hot cocoa, and even Girl Scout cookies -- on February 22nd New Haven troops donated 300 cases, each containing twelve boxes of cookies -- have joined the shipments to chaplains' coffeehouses.

In addition to the continued support of UCC churches, Cooper Atkins, Green Mountain Coffee, New England Coffee and Equal Exchange, Jastermsky gave thanks for the generosity of Harney and Sons Teas; Dean's Beans (part of Catholic Relief Services); and Mystic Monk Coffee, a Carmelite monastery in Wyoming.

"Miracles can really happen," Tom Jastermsky declared, reflecting on the growth of the ministry. "Your faith has to get strong just doing this program.

"I've been told by the chaplains countless times: it's just a way of showing our care and compassion for people in a diffcult setting; that's what they say about Holy Joe's."

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