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Paths that Converge: Spirituality and Fair Trade

by David Funkhouser

Late in the sixth decade of my life, I said farewell to a wonderful community of friends in Philadelphia, let go of much of the “extra” I had accumulated, packed a few boxes, prepared to ship my piano, and headed west into the world of Fair Trade.  Like many other passages, it just seemed like the right thing to do.  Following 10 years of parish ministry as an Episcopal priest, including faith-based community organizing work, I was ready for a change.  The opportunity to join TransFair USA in Oakland, California would draw on experience and skills developed over the years, and the prospect of taking part in a mission intended to empower small-scale farmers and farm workers struck a major chord. More than five years later, I reflect now on the amazing privilege it is to be part of one of the most promising social change initiatives on the planet: the Fair Trade model that is building dignity, improving people’s lives, and nurturing farming families in very concrete and real ways. I’m grateful also that Fair Trade challenges us in the Global North to look mindfully at our consumption patterns and change how we do business, for the benefit of everyone.

The theme Jackie proposes for this blog is the intersection of our spiritual paths and Fair Trade. I acknowledge that the seeds of my current work and the type of work I have done most of my life were planted during childhood and adolescence. In the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and the rural community where I grew up, life revolved around the small United Church of Christ (UCC).   The values of simplicity and generosity seemed to be naturally embraced in our somewhat insular life; however, there was also a strong taste of struggle, as hard-working families, including our own, faced economic insecurities and hardship.  Something was born in me in my youth that has stayed with me, and it had to do with “what is not right with the world.” That seed motivated me to look beyond the Valley to the wider world, and, with the encouragement of special persons along the way, I set out to become a doctor, with the bold intent to follow in the footsteps of Albert Schweitzer in Africa.  I left the Valley and went to a UCC college, but instead of med school and the Africa dream, I joined the Peace Corps and spent two years teaching biology in Bogotá, Colombia.  The Peace Corps experience was rich and formative in many ways, and it also brought me face-to-face with harsh realities of endemic poverty and systemic economic injustice, causing a lot of pain and inner conflict.  This was taking place in the late tumultuous ’60s as I began to connect the dots for a deeper understanding of what was not right with the world, and I became more and more aware that this was all part of my spiritual path.  I accepted that the conflicts, injustice, and contradictions made it impossible to be neutral.

Seminary (rather than med school) followed the Peace Corps, then ordination and Episcopal parish ministry, school chaplaincy, and a period of broadening my spiritual practice by conversing with Quakerism, Judaism, Buddhism.  In 1978, I learned about the revolution taking place in Nicaragua and the role of Christian base communities in that process, and for the next 10-12 years I lived and breathed Central America, working on education for U.S. Americans on what was happening there, accompanying delegations, building relationships, and, overall, trying to influence U.S. policy.  The policy piece was incredibly frustrating and difficult.  There were many rewards, though, in the relationships with Central Americans, both in their countries and exiled, and many of them were part of faith communities.  Those were perhaps the most challenging and also the most rewarding years of my life, nurtured by the vision and conviction of people who faithfully pursued their dream of justice and dignity.  Their faith reinforced my own.

Fast forward to many years later, when I woke up to Fair Trade and to the insight: THIS WORKS!  This is an accessible and concrete way to address social and economic justice, and the work is consistent with values I’ve held all my life.  Of course, the greatest inspiration and meaning comes in relationship with remarkable people who are part of the Fair Trade movement-the producers, artisans, and workers and their families, as well as the partners all along the chain.  I am reminded that meaning is at the core of spirituality.

I’m a great admirer of those who have contributed to this blog before me, grateful for their gifts, their inspired work, the questions they raise.  The issues of over-consumption and the future of our planet are at the root of the spiritual crisis that afflicts our species.  In this path in Fair Trade, also in the evolution of my spiritual journey, my aspiration is to contribute to real and accessible solutions to the great problems of our time, solutions that empower people to become actors in their own lives, as necessary for us who are privileged as for the unfairly treated.  Trying to do this, I’ve become more and more aware of the need to hold contradictions as we attempt change. It’s a tough thing to do.  I like to remind myself of a quote a close friend shared with me, written in the 20th century by the Russian philosopher Lev Shestov: “Freedom consists in the force and power not to admit evil into the world.”  I think of the spiritual path as trying to raise my consciousness in the search for that kind of freedom, and the Fair Trade path as putting my consciousness into action.

- David Funkhouser


  1. Janet Rhodes

    Thank you for sharing your journey. I, too, am an ordained minister, serving in the United Church of Christ. I came to fair trade work via a vision one day born out of a desperate prayer while healing from a divorce and loss of church ministry. I opened my own store, Janet Rhodes brings you Fair Trade, seeking to add my voice to the 1,000s of others who are working for justice in the marketplace.

    I also am called to join in the conversation of fair trade and spirituality. Thank you for the sentence: “the greatest inspiration and meaning comes in relationship with remarkable people who are part of the Fair Trade movement.” Indeed, it is the stories of people that teach me the greatest spiritual lessons. I am drawn to people more than policies. I pray that my policies within my own little business will honor my brothers and sisters around this world.

    Thank you for your good work. I have only recently stumbled on your blog entry. Blessings in your continued graceful walk.

    Janet Rhodes

  2. I really enjoyed reading about your journey. Both my daughters and I are active in promoting fair-trade in our community, both school and church

  3. Sarah Reed Harris

    I believe David Funkhouser may have been my chior director in Colombia when I was about 6 or 7 years old. Talk about planted seeds! Church music and Social Justice remain core values with my four siblings and me. Oh what marvelous twists in our individual spiritual journeys!

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