John Hornbeck, right, visits Testimony School in Kapchorwa, Uganda. photo provided
John Hornbeck, right, visits Testimony School in Kapchorwa, Uganda. photo provided

Like a great cup of coffee, the now full-bodied relationship between Sisters and Uganda began with fresh water.

Seven years ago, a team from Sisters Community Church (SCC) led by pastor Tim Kizziar in cooperation with All Nations Ministries, ventured to a desolate, war-ravaged village in northeastern Uganda to offer clean water and spiritual hope. This fall, coffee aficionados right here in Sisters may get a taste of some unexpected fruits of that journey, simply by brewing a pot of locally bought coffee.

Amid the steep, lush canyons that camouflaged violent tribes, Kizziar's original group prayed for healing of the land and its people. And they began the slow work of growing their new friendship with the warm, open-armed Subiny tribe.

"Africa is built on relationships," says John Hornbeck, of Sisters.

Hornbeck, a retired attorney just back from his most recent of several trips to Uganda, and Paul Rawlins, SCC's energetic Outward Pastor, are buzzing with excitement over a new coffee-related endeavor that they believe could be a dynamic agent of change for Uganda. Hornbeck and Rawlins represent hundreds of church members who have embraced a long-term commitment to give a leg up to the people of Kapchorwa village in their fight for survival - and revival - under the harshest of conditions.

Murderous cattle rustlers, AIDS and waterborne diseases are just some of the miseries that had decimated the farming community, leaving multitudes homeless, fatherless and vulnerable.

Kizziar partnered with Pastor Godwin of Kapchorwa's Christ Glorious Church back in 2003, and began exploring ways to help Godwin help his people. First, a well was built in a soldier-guarded Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP) camp, and medical teams from Sisters were deployed to remedy health issues.

Then the children's future was addressed.

Says Hornbeck, "Their young people have a great desire for education and to excel; they have aspirations."

Today, just up the mountain from the IDP camp stands the newly built Testimony School where, according to Rawlins, 450 children now receive an education, health care, shoes and a daily meal through SCC's child-sponsorship program.

Back in Sisters, many residents display photos of the eager, bright-faced Kapchorwan boys and girls who they support and correspond with. It was apparent that the Kapchorwan community would need to somehow become economically self-sustaining.

In 2006 an SCC team noted that the only large building in Kapchorwa was a coffee mill. When asked about the quality of their coffee crop, farmers eagerly showed off their beans, and a member of the Sisters team with connections to Starbucks had the coffee analyzed. As it turned out, the high altitude and tropical climate along the western slopes of Mt. Elgon yield the ideal growing conditions for quality Arabica beans.

Mt. Elgon straddles the border of Kenya to the east, and Kenyan coffees typically garner top dollar. Despite the fact that in the world economy coffee is the second largest commodity next to oil, these simple farmers seemed surprised by the level of interest.

Uganda, historically, was a British colony; most Ugandans drink tea.

They sell most of their crop locally, or to large multi-national corporations who pay bottom dollar then label the beans as "farmer co-op."

Rawlins says, "The term is deceitful; consumers don't know the difference."

Those corporations further control the farmers because they own the only bean-washing station.

According to Hornbeck, "They're just farmers, with no access to direct buyers and no ability to market."

Rawlins and Hornbeck explored several scenarios to improve the farmers' bottom line, but came up dry until two years ago, when they got some help from an unexpected source. Hornbeck's sister, a member of the board of directors at Michigan State University, connected Hornbeck with Dan Clay, the head of the school's Institute of Agriculture. Clay, along with a native Rwandan grad student, had created the PEARL project (The Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages) which played a key role in the redevelopment of Rwanda from its devastation by genocide.

Hornbeck says that under Clay's program, "one washing station grew to, like, 140, and coffee became the chief export of Rwanda and the most important economic factor in their recovery."

When Michigan State performed a diagnostic on coffee grown in the region around Kapchorwa, its characteristics were confirmed: Arabica, mountain grown, volcanic soil, shade grown.

Ugandan President Musevini sat down with Hornbeck, Rawlins and Clay in September 2008. Hornbeck calls Musevini "an economist by education who understands the farmer-owned concept as long as they have a market."

Janet Storton, of Sisters, was also at the meeting and presented President Musevini with a quilted fabric bag made by the Kapchorwan women she trained through her Sisters of the Heart project - another offshoot of SCC's broadening relationship with Kapchorwa. (See related story in the 2010 Sisters Oregon Guide.)

Last month, Rawlins and Hornbeck put the finishing touches on what Hornbeck calls a "real economic partnership" and KaBuM International (Kapchorwa Bukwo Mild) was launched.

"This year we hope to begin construction of the first farmer-owned washing station," says Rawlins. "We have a core group of best practices and top farmers in that region. The difference is we let them own the means of production so no middleman can exploit them."

"Then the Ugandans will own title to the washing station," adds Hornbeck.

That washing station could be ready in time for this fall's harvest, and the beans available for sale locally as early as September.

Hornbeck and Rawlins are having no trouble connecting farmers with new buyers. Sisters Coffee Company is one, eager for a second relationship like the one they've developed in Guatemala. Justin Durham of Sisters Coffee says they are "so psyched to bring in Ugandan coffee."

Durham plans to start by purchasing small quantities, then "hopefully growing it into a sustainable long-term relationship. We want the few we have to be really deep relationships."

The Ugandan farmers are benefiting on all fronts. The large buying corporations are being held to higher standards, paying better prices.

"Now they know. By educating the farmers, they're becoming liberated," says Rawlins.

Hornbeck and Rawlins' stake in KaBuM ends when the loans are paid off. They'll remain only as consultants and member farmers.

Since 2003, Rawlins and Hornbeck have seen at least eight attractive coffeehouses spring up in the capital city of Kampala. In the same period, the faith of the Sabiny tribe has flourished and members of Christ Glorious Church have risked their lives to make peace with their lifelong enemies.

They've built a well for - and offered forgiveness to - the machine-gun-and-machete-toting Karamajong raiders who have killed their men, women and children and burned their homes. The women of both tribes have cried together.

A whole lot of Sisters folks have had a part in planting and watering the seeds of change in Uganda. Sitting at a table in Sisters Coffee Company, Hornbeck leans forward and his eyes seem to spark as he says, "If coffee enables the country to develop economically - that's everything. That's what will change Africa."

For more information on the outward projects of Sisters Community Church including child sponsorships, contact Paul Rawlins at 541-549-1201 or e-mail prawlins@ sisterschurch.com.