More tea? Yes, and do take your time

A quick coffee might suit some, but there is no substitute for ritual, Clare Bryden discovers

Published in the Church Times, 11 September 2015
Full article on the Church Times website (paywall), including questions for Reading Groups
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BLACK tea is falling out of favour in Britain. In August, The Guardian published an article reporting that sales were down by 22 per cent over the past five years, as it has been supplanted by coffee. It therefore follows that tea must copy coffee if it is to survive.

“Unlike tea, coffee is aspirational. It is a Rolex in a cardboard cup. A takeaway flat white/bulletproof says you have means and a lifestyle. . . . a tea . . . is the anti-coffee, a beverage so unaspirational that it is fondly known as a ‘builders’,” the paper says.

Here is exposed the vacuity of modern aspiration: means, lifestyle, superior taste, and the surplus time and money to show it all off. Aspirational tea means trendy London cafés (presumably built by builders rather than lifestyle journalists).

The Revd Becca Stevens (Features, 13 June 2014) obviously considers tea as aspirational, too; but those aspirations are very different. Stevens founded Thistle Farms, a social enterprise in Nashville, Tennessee, which provides a haven — a community, and rewarding employment — for women who have survived prostitution, trafficking, and addiction.

The Way of Tea and Justice broadly chronicles her vision for a Thistle Stop Café, which seeks to minister both to the women and to all its visitors. Tea plays a central part in its realisation.

Tea has a powerful back story in the United States, associated with the Boston Tea Party, colonialism, and the oppression of women. But, for these reasons, Stevens sees it also as a source of healing. Tea is the tree of life: its leaves are even able to bring about the healing of the nations after the wounds caused by the East India Company and the Opium Wars.

She launches a new concept of Shared Trade alongside the café, which goes beyond fair trade: it is dedicated to closing the gap between producers and consumers, and bringing women out of poverty through sustainable employment.

Tea provides an opportunity to pour out the self, to give the gift of hospitality, and find healing in service of others. It represents — demands, even — a slowing. It is worth observing the ritual of warming the pot, combining the leaves and other ingredients, and allowing the tea to steep for the required number of minutes before pouring, not because it is the “latest thing”, but because it opens up a sacred space.

“It’s as if tea can’t help itself. In its pure simplicity, it calls you to slow down, to pay attention, and to listen. . . Tea opens up the time to have the conversation that brings us to intimacy and community with our tea-drinking friends.”

There is the obvious parallel with the eucharist: the ordered ritual, the pouring out, the community gathered to share the cup. Now I, too, have started to see tea as a means of teaching contemplative prayer. Time and again, Stevens writes of intentionality, of setting aside time, and of being in the present moment.

She writes of her experience of how tea enables the unfolding of stories and the fulfilling of dreams. One of the earliest ways of engaging people in the vision was to collect old teacups from around the world, each with a powerful associated story.

Stevens tells the stories of several women at Thistle Farms. For each one, aspiration means the taste of justice and the golden glow of hope on a dark journey.

So it should be apparent that this is no simple history of the global tea trade, or straightforward story of how the Thistle Stop Café was conceived and realised. It is a blend of recipes and stories — of the struggles and setbacks and triumphs; of the teacups and their owners; of the women of Thistle Farms; of Stevens herself; and, of course, of tea, and its trade and consumption — all stirred and steeped to make a heady, inspiring brew.

Some people have their ideas in the shower, or walking in nature, or doing the ironing. My ideas pop up when I am reading. A good book can release all sorts of thoughts from the subconscious on often unrelated subjects; the most inspiring books, I find, are the most “putdownable”, as I scrabble for paper and pen.

Perhaps it sounds as if Stevens is reading too much into tea. But I paid The Way of Tea and Justice the highest possible compliment I can give to a book: I abandoned it for a time, because she had inspired me to get up and get on with my own very different vision.

As she writes: “Insight comes from inspired work in which we learn from both our successes and our failures. Insight doesn’t come from wishing and imagining. If we did have the answers spelled out for us before we began our journey, there would be no reason to take the journey. . . When we find ourselves afraid of failure or worrying about success, the best thing to do is just keep our heads down and take another step forward.”

These are wise, aspirational words. Oh, and I understand that the Thistle Stop Café also serves coffee.


Tea-Justice

The Way of Tea and Justice is published by Canterbury Press at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70): 987-1-84825-784-9.