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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Walla Walla coffee shop connects people, faith

By Bronwyn Worthington

The Walla Walla Roastery serves more than a good cup of coffee.

Roastery Walla Walla
Thomas Reese and Mary Senter in coffee shop

An icon of the Virgin Mary hanging on the wall in the kitchen reminds the brother and sister who own the coffee shop that their role in life is to serve people. Co-owners Thomas Reese and Mary Senter invite conversations with and among staff and customers, foster interest in coffee growers and their countries, and help coffee drinkers raise funds for nonprofits.

Integrating their family legacy of service and their Orthodox faith, which they adopted as adults, these siblings’ influence extends beyond the doors of their business.

As the coffee shop grew, Thomas and Mary dreamed of expanding it into an environment that fostered conversations among members of the community. They consider it part of their job to encourage people to share views on faith and justice as they converse about life and community events.

Thomas and Mary describe their business as part of “the third wave of coffee.”  The first wave viewed coffee only for the sake of consumption.    The second wave focused on creating specialty coffees for enjoyment.  The third wave appreciates coffees for the unique attributes they offer, for their countries of origin and for the farms that produce them.

When considering which coffees to purchase, Thomas and Mary consider how those in charge of coffee plantations treat their workers and how they sustain the land. Thomas describes a model coffee farm as one that leaves an inheritance for its grandchildren.

While the business sells some fair-trade certified coffee, the owners see a need to update the current system.  The two have learned that although some smaller farms benefit from the current fair-trade system, other legitimate, larger farms are unable to receive the fair-trade certification.
Working closely with their broker and researching the farms for themselves helps them honor what they consider the original standards of fair trade.

“The goal is to allow the consumer to pay more for a good cup of coffee so the money in turn will return to the grower,” Thomas said.

From the beginning in 2001, Mary has handled public relations for the business, which has included developing initiatives that benefit nonprofit organizations.

Beginning as a wholesale operation in Thomas’ garage, the co-owners spent many hours roasting beans shipped from places as far away as Indonesia and Ethiopia. During this time, Thomas and Mary began helping businesses, churches and institutions to select their own beans and roasts to create signature coffee blends.

Two of the nonprofits that have benefited are the Cambodia Project and The Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship.  In both cases, the roastery has named unique blends of coffee for them.
Thomas and Mary have donated $1 for every pound of the named blends they have sold to the nonprofits designated.

The Cambodia Project began shortly after Mary and her husband Brian adopted their daughter, Ruth, from Cambodia.  A representative of American Assistance for Cambodia suggested a partnership. In response, Thomas and Mary created their Ratanakiri Blend and Corky’s Blend. The benefit project with those blends lasted until 2007.

“It seemed natural to me to work on the Cambodian coffee project as a way to give back a little to the birth-country of our daughter,” said Mary.

roastery children
Children of Mary and Brian

Along with Ruth and two sons by birth, Mary and Brian have adopted two daughters from Ethiopia, where the roastery also has coffee ties.

The Krista Foundation Benefit features the Global Citizen blend of coffee.  It began after Aaron Ausland, the late Krista Hunt Ausland’s husband, came to the roastery several years ago. He told how the Krista Foundation began in Spokane after Krista died at age 25 in a bus accident while she and Aaron worked in Bolivia as community developers.

His story also drew Mary’s interest because she knew Krista’s parents, Jim and Linda Hunt, who taught at Whitworth when she was a student there. The Hunts helped establish the foundation in their daughter’s name. The foundation seeks to empower young Christian adults to embrace service as a way of life, become active and imaginative citizens, promote stewardship of creation and commit to think globally and act locally.

Having grown up in Walla Walla, Thomas and Mary experienced a secure, happy childhood with their parents and other siblings, Daniel and David.  The Reese children grew up in a Presbyterian home with their father practicing law and their mother creating a hospitable home for them and for struggling children they took in.

“Mom always had an open door.  Often we had others living with us,” Mary said.

Thomas’ journey into Orthodox faith led him from Portland to Alaska and back to Walla Walla.
Shortly after Thomas graduated from Walla Walla High School in 1980, he moved to Portland, lived an alternative lifestyle involving skateboarding and punk rock music, and became caught up in destructive habits and drug abuse.

Realizing his need for a change, he moved to Anchorage in 1988. He believes Alaska’s untamed, diverse lands opened him to a new understanding of the meaning of life.

“During this point, God came to me, and I changed,” he said.

Along with inspiration from nature, Thomas found friends who were different from any he had met before. Connected by their Orthodox faith, the group influenced him to adopt the Orthodox tradition.

“In my hour of need, they were just there,” he said.

Free of drug addiction and filled with the joy of his new faith, Thomas met his wife Elizabeth at St. John’s Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River. They married in 1990. Today they have six children, aged two to 16.

In 1996, after working with TransAlaska Pipelines for several years, Thomas and the assistant priest of his church began the Holy Cross House ministry. For five years, he, Elizabeth and their first two children cared for 20 young people, assisting with administrative tasks, cooking and mentoring.

Thomas also helped counsel young people who struggled with drug problems, as he had. He believed he had a responsibility to be available to others.

Seeing her brother’s transformation, Mary attended worship with him in Alaska.  She was drawn by the liturgy and “a faith that seemed ‘real.’”  She returned to Walla Walla and became involved in St. Silouan Orthodox Church, which met in a private home until 2003 when they moved into a church building.

Other family members, impressed with Thomas’ transformation, also converted: brothers, David, who now lives in Yakima, and Daniel, formerly a Presbyterian minister and now assistant priest at St. Silouan, and their mother. Their father remains Presbyterian. Thomas joined St. Silouan when he and his family returned to Walla Walla in 2000, seeking a new vocation.

Feeling limited by a lack of formal education, he sought purposeful work. After much discussion, he invited Mary to be his business partner and open the Walla Walla Roastery. In 2006 they moved the roastery to its current location near the Walla Walla airport.

While Thomas and Mary consider participation at St. Silouan Orthodox Church a vital part of their lives, they attempt to live out their faith every day at the Walla Walla Roastery. Thomas said he and Mary are open to sharing their faith without pushing it on people. He says he likes to mix with various groups, just as Christ spent time with more than one group of people.

“We just try to be Christians and reach out to people,” he said.

Being in the kitchen, the icon of the Virgin Mary, Thomas added, is more for them than their customers.  It reminds them to integrate their faith into their work.

For information, call 526-3211.