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Asher Van Wollingen Cupping Coffee

My Journey of Justice: Asher Van Wollingen

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Asher Van Wollingen is the founder of The Co.Lab, a Perth-based social enterprise focusing on ethical and specialty coffee. They believe that the world is changed by little things done with great love. Connecting consumers and cafes with fairly traded produce, they aim to create seeds of hope all over the world.

What started you on your journey of justice?

The symbiosis of Christian faith and justice have been a part of my story since childhood, with my parents massively influencing both action and reflection. As a newlywed in 2006, I went to a TEAR event in Perth called ‘Fairer Homes and Gardens’, and someone made this comment: “How would you feel if you knew the coffee you were drinking was not only creating but sustaining the poverty cycle?” That got me and my wife thinking about how you can donate to organisations to help them alleviate poverty while simultaneously engaging in practices that create poverty. That kick-started my wife and I to find a more consistent way to live; one that didn’t engage in practices that were creating the problems that we were trying to see alleviated. That was the beginning of it all.

What motivates you to take action to pursue justice?

One of the things I love about the Christian faith is that we are encouraged to engage our whole selves, to be part of God’s great plan of redemption and restoration. That’s the core relationship that I keep coming back to, particularly when I’m frustrated by the lack of progress or feel overwhelmed. God has made a way for the redemption of all things and has equipped His people to join with Him in that work.

And, it helps to have connection with organisations like TEAR, and the people within those organisations, who embody the engagement of whole self. Through them, you can see the fruit of long-term persistence and habitual change. I’m always asking people what their story is, because I always want to engage with the depths of their journey and find out how they got to where they are, and how they sustain the hope for transformation in a world full
of darkness.

One of the things I wanted to experiment with was whether it was possible to run a business that is foundationally from a Christian worldview.

How are you pursuing God’s justice today?

The Co.Lab Coffee is one aspect of a holistic perspective. It’s emerged out of those early conversations; out of a desire to see life and faith integrated across the board, work life, church life and family life. We initially wanted a roastery / training cafe where we could employ people, and also be a cultural catalyst to help people experience our philosophy of integration, learn about sustainable food practices and support ethical trade. But now it’s become The Co.Lab because we wanted to make it less of a transaction (producing coffee to sell to a buyer) and more of a conversation (we now also provide cafes with support and professional development in how to be sustainable in ethics and income).

One of the things I wanted to experiment with was whether it was possible to run a business that is foundationally from a Christian worldview. In light of eternity rather than temporary profit – like Jesus challenges us in Matthew 6. I’ve been inspired to ask: What is the fundamental philosophy behind my business? Am I just trying to earn enough to live a middle-class life and give a little on the side? They’re the kind of questions that I go over and over to ensure my vision of the good life is also being reoriented.

Asher Van Wollingen With Ephrem Ethiopian Coffee 2

Above: Asher (left) with Gabriel, a coffee farmer from Brazil.

We’ve chosen to make less margin than many roasters because we also choose sustainable packaging, pay more per raw kilo, and I tithe a percentage of our profits to TEAR and other organisations. Other business people say I need those margins, but how do you define “need”? Where do you get those principles from? Have they been shaped by eternity and the kingdom of God?

It has been very challenging. I am a naïve millennial westerner who has ideas about wanting to change the world. I recognise that a lot of that is born out of ignorance and arrogance. The journey has been tough on a spiritual level, but also on a practical and financial level. It has been a sanctifying journey, one that has formed our characters in ways that were necessary and humbling. And through this, I have recognised more of who God is, and who I am in Christ. I’ve experienced God’s love for me, and a hope that is far deeper, that extends beyond a simple optimism.

It’s been 8 years now. When we started the business, we were a young married couple. We’ve got three kids now, and have also been involved in a church plant during this time. We don’t like to do things by halves.

What’s your vision for tomorrow?

I am an ideas person. I get very excited about transformation. Problems are exciting for me because it means I can engage in problem solving. My hope for tomorrow isn’t black and white, but that doesn’t mean that it’s hopeless. Transformation does happen, but the story we tell needs to be nuanced with the struggle in the midst of that change.

If you could share a cuppa with an inspirational justice advocate, who would it be?

William Wilberforce, because of the way he used his vocational position, as a politician, to drive practical social change. I admire his persistence, advocating and agitating for justice. He had a vision of the Kingdom of God that he tried to put into the broken, finite systems of law and politics.

TEAR partners with The Co.Lab to help provide funding for a project in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, run by local organisation E-WAR (Ellita – Women at Risk). TEAR's partner enables women involved in prostitution to exit the work through rehabilitation and livelihoods training. They also improve community awareness through education so that fewer women are likely to enter the commercial sex trade to earn a living.