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Growing the Church in China

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The Catholic Tea Mission

The world's best teas are grown in China, but many of these teas are unknown in the United States. Remote tea farms in exotic locations produce teas that rarely reach the American teacup. Of the 1.75 million tons of tea that China produces each year, less than 2% is exported to the United States. Meanwhile, China's population is nearing 1.4 billion people, yet less than 1% is Catholic.  Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Protestants, and nonbelievers all outnumber Catholics in large numbers. John Smagula, a certified tea specialist and practicing Catholic, saw these very small numbers as an opportunity.  A former Wall Street lawyer, he sought to leverage his experience to change lives one leaf at a time.


By John Smagula
Catholic Online (
1/26/2015 (9 years ago)

Published in Health

Keywords: tea, catholic, social justice, travel

The United States does not produce significant quantities of tea, while over half of the U.S. population drinks tea each day. Research has shown that tea has many health benefits, helping to reduce heart disease, certain cancers, obesity, and osteoporosis. Tea is also environmentally friendly, grown from renewable resources. In short, there is little downside to consuming more Chinese tea.

At the same time, evangelization efforts in China are challenging. Though some faith communities are growing in the coastal and urban areas, church membership is declining in many rural areas. A shortage of priests, a lack of resources, an increasingly migrant population, and limited religious education all contribute to the decline. 

Help support the Church in China by buying Crossings Tea.

At present, the Vatican and China do not have official relations; the government-led Catholic Patriotic Association is the official church body in China. Despite this division, Rome and Beijing have found ways to work together. For example, the Chinese church recognizes the spiritual authority of the papacy, and Pope Francis is generally mentioned by name in the Eucharistic Prayer said at Masses. 

Against this backdrop, John wanted to provide a new option to American tea consumers while sowing into Chinese church. He found a way to blend tea and faith to make an impact.

A social enterprise steeped in spirit

John founded Crossings Tea Company to sell high-quality tea and support the church in China. He searched for an area that produced spectacular tea and also had a struggling church. His journey brought him to the dramatic cliffs of the Three Gorges region, where local teas seldom leave. The farmers produce superb teas, but lack the resources or knowhow to enter into international markets. The tiny Yichang Diocese, also located here, is one of China's most under-served. It was the perfect place to begin.

Belgian Franciscans were once responsible for the Yichang Diocese, building schools, hospitals, and orphanages. Political events in the 1950s caused foreign missionaries to leave and church activities to halt. Worship services resumed in the 1980s with the Chinese church, but foreign missionary work is still not permitted. Economic development projects, however, are welcome.

John teamed up with Father Li Xiaoguo, vicar general of the Yichang Diocese, to create a tea mission. They structured the project in a way that would both support the church and comply with Chinese laws and policies. The tea company would become a platform to support religious workers and Catholic tea farmers, while also developing the role of the church in civil society.

An unprecedented mission

Sustainability and trust became hallmarks of this effort. Over the years, John had seen many well-intentioned development projects come and go in China. Often the projects would survive as long as there was a lifeline of foreign funding, then diminish or disappear once the support came to an end. Indigenization of development projects has long been a challenge for aid agencies.

At the same time, a dilemma for many foreign businesses seeking to establish a presence in China is finding a local business partner. How to find the right partner was the most common question John was asked when he spoke at seminars on doing business in China. He would often give a stock answer, saying that it is important to get an introduction by a mutual friend and then take the time to build trust, but that answer never seemed satisfying.

These questions of sustainability and trust inspired John to think of a new model, one where Chinese and foreign partners all share the same Catholic faith. As far as he could tell, this had never been done. When he goes to the farm, he goes as a fellow believer and not an aid worker, sharing the same faith and values. They believe in the same God, attend Mass together, and fellowship in a common faith. Despite different educational and cultural backgrounds, a united faith brings them together as one family. Father Li and John worked to create this spiritual connection before even talking about tea.

Growing the church

The Three Gorges region has become victim to China's migrant population trends. Many young Catholics leave the region to find work in factories in distant parts of China, returning home once a year during the Chinese New Year. They live in factory dormitories in large industrial complexes far away from any local church. Part of vision of Crossings Tea is to reunite families by building a sustainable and environmentally friendly tea business right in their hometown, one that supports their faith, families, and lives.

The political situation of the last century prevented older Catholics, many of whom were baptized by foreign missionaries, from sharing their faith with younger generations. Church buildings were abandoned or converted to other uses. Several decades without priests left a gap in the succession of religious workers. State-sponsored education that championed atheism influenced students and adults alike.

A beleaguered church with struggling tea farmers became the focus for Crossings Tea. The company supports religious workers in their service and outreach, raises awareness of the church's beneficial role in society, and provides financial support to the Yichang Diocese. John has become a well-known volunteer in the diocese, regularly traveling around with the diocesan priests and nuns to teach, serve, and share.

The mission goes beyond economic development. Crossings Tea is a mission-based company supporting the local church and its community of believers and seekers. In solidarity with the universal mission of the church, the company acts as a unique channel for God's transformative grace to empower the spreading of the faith throughout China.

Join the mission

Crossings Tea sells black, green, and jasmine teas grown in small villages in the Three Gorges region. As the company grows, it will expand its operations to engage and impact believers. The mission is not just about growing tea, but also about growing faith, in one of China's poorest and most under-served dioceses. Proceeds from tea sales are used to support this mission.

To learn more about Crossings Tea, please visit


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