In this, my first “meaty” post about God and Coffee, I simply want to tell a story. It’s a story you may know if you know me personally, or might have a connection to in some other way. It’s nothing more than a personal story about how coffee, and a small little world made possible, changed my life. This felt like an especially poignant story to tell because of all the news and opinions about mental illness surrounding Robin Williams’ death.
This is only a story, and you may wonder, “What does this have to do with God and coffee?” Well, this story has coffee in it, and it has God in it, so that’s my first qualification. But mostly, I tell this story because I think this whole situation was made possible because coffee is something that most of the world shares in common. It’s something that almost all of us drink, young and old, and unites us with the rest of the world: where coffee drinking, farming, and distributing take place. It’s a shared experience, and I think God is in it.
In 2005, an espresso and smoothie catering company called Dirty Water Coffee Co. was started in Oklahoma City by an ambitious, but driven 20 year old named Taggart Dertinger, affectionately known by the name Tag. From scratch, Tag developed a fully mobile coffee and smoothie shop that could be set up in 15 minutes or less, and offer everything from espresso shots to Busted Bean Frappuccinos, or the classic Snozzberry smoothie. By the time I joined the company in 2011, Dirty Water was doing upwards of 20-25 events per week, with four full setups that could be in different places at once.
I started working with Dirty Water Coffee in 2011 after I graduated from college. I was looking for a solid summer job in OKC before I moved to California to begin graduate school in the Fall. I was interested in coffee, and considered it a hobby, but I had never worked in it before. This was my *first* coffee job.
And Tag was just the right guy to teach it to me. Before I ever trained on my first day, he invited me to go rock climbing with his friends and the other coworkers. Tag loved physical activity, whether it was rock climbing, triathlons, water skiing, skate-boarding… nothing was too extreme for Tag. And he loved people more than anything. He was always listening, inviting, investing, and encouraging. Training with Tag was always fun – he always seemed so impressed – and it almost always included a meal and goofing around. And yet he earned the kind of respect that is normally reserved for Presidents and CEO’s, despite being only four years older than me.
Most importantly, Tag had a unique compassion – a once-in-a-lifetime type of compassion that sees people as equals, hurts for people who are disadvantaged, and forgives constantly. He forgave me twice, and neither time I came close to deserving it. Any other employer would have fired me for falling asleep at the wheel on my first solo appointment, or for scraping the van on a post and then trying to cover it up… but Tag didn’t. His forgiveness actually empowered me to be a better employee and a better person. He was also always more social than me; I can be something of an introvert, but the job demanded that I not hide. This is something coffee service continues to teach me. When I am one day a pastor, I will owe Tag and every other coffee job I’ve worked a lot for teaching me how to engage new people and be welcoming and outgoing.
But Tag had compassion for more than his employees. Tag had an especially deep compassion on people who were homeless or struggling to get by. I often ran errands with Tag, and any time a homeless person would ask him for money, Tag would ask him what he was good at and offer him a job. Tag would create jobs that he didn’t need to be filled just so that people could earn some money. He knew he had a lot to give, and his generosity wasn’t afraid of people who were homeless, begging, or disheveled. Every once in a while, someone took him up on this, and Tag would buy them clothes and get them everything they needed to have the opportunity to succeed. And it broke his heart when they didn’t show up when they were supposed to. He was old fashioned in that way, but he was also right. Tag never wanted to give a handout, but he also knew how many things were working against people who genuinely wanted to make a way for themselves.
I remember one time we were driving near the capital in Oklahoma City, and Tag saw what appeared to be a drug-exchange at a gas station less than a mile from the ornate capital building. Tag got angrier than I had ever seen him, furious that something like that could happen so nearby to the people who had a responsibility to do something about it. He wasn’t political, per se. But he believed in the dignity of every person, that everyone deserved a shot, and he was broken by the fact that so few people were willing to do anything about it.
On November 13, 2012, Tag Dertinger lost a lifelong battle with Bipolar Disorder, taking his own life. He wasn’t aware of this struggle until late in his life, when it began to take its largest toll. At the time of his death, he was running Dirty Water mostly on his own, and the company has not been active since. I was already living in California at the time, and was stunned by the news. Tag was more than a boss, and more than just a friend. I looked up to him, I learned so much from him about how to be good person and an adult, and I’ll never forget him.
After his death, Tag’s loved ones created a campaign called “Tag it Forward” to keep Tag’s legacy of compassion and adventure alive. I’ve stayed in contact with his partner, Staci, and his father Al, and both have worked hard in their grief and loss to help try to make the world a place more like Tag imagined it could be. Staci and Al actually worked together with me to donate a full catering setup to Rose City Coffee – an organization I work with now and will describe more in later posts – to use toward our goal of changing the lives of homeless and transitional aged youth through training and developing through coffee. This donation will strengthen our ability to do catering events, which both funds and provides a unique training ground for our youth development program. I recently learned that Al is helping fund and start a housing program for transitional youth as well in Portland, who also wants to open a coffee shop to provide jobs for the students it houses. They are going to call it “Tag It Forward Coffee”. I hope to send them all the resources I’ve found and developed at Rose City to help them with that project.
This is just one of those stories that helps me find God in the complexity of life. I would never, ever say that Tag died for a reason, or that this was all part of God’s plan, or anything like that. What I do believe is that one person can be so inspiring, and so in-tune with God’s hope for the world, that even something as horrible as mental illness and suicide can’t stop the good they can do in this world. This story helps me believe that God can work in spite of tragedy and bring new life even out of death. I still cry when I think of Tag, and that pain will never go away and will never be justified. But I believe God felt that pain too, and is doing everything possible to bring good out of such destruction and sadness. And I believe that it’s working. I’m inspired by Tag daily, and I know many others are too.
Obviously, this is a unique story. I don’t expect many of you to have experienced “God and Coffee” in this same way. I promise the rest of my posts won’t be quite so personal. But maybe we can all relate to this story anyway; stories are cool like that. And maybe it just helps you understand where I’m coming from, and how personal this whole coffee thing is to me.
Keep an eye out for my next post, where I’ll talk about how God and Coffee relates to Global Justice.