By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
OSKALOOSA — Michael Gituma grew up in Kenya. His wife, Jessica, grew up in the rural Midwest. Despite their unique backgrounds, their mutual desire to express their Catholic faith through justice draws them together — in love and in occupation.
“We have big dreams of impacting our home countries,” Jessica said.
Through a new business venture several years in the making, the Gitumas are combining Jessica’s desire to advocate for individuals with special needs and Michael’s desire to help coffee farmers around the world earn a fair salary. The Simba Shop in Oskaloosa, which sells and serves fair-trade coffee, opened in November. Guests are likely to see individuals with developmental disabilities helping around the shop, gaining valuable work skills and confidence.
A multicultural love story
The couple’s story began 11 years ago at William Penn University in Oskaloosa. Their attraction was instant and their courtship brief; within five months they were married. “I knew God had made him for me,” Jessica gushed.
The couple shared a sense of pride for their home countries, which helped them to bond. It was important to both Jessica and Michael to retain their cultural identities. Additionally, they had endured personal challenges that caused them to lean on God and want to help others. In their sorrows, they found a mutual understanding. Prior to meeting Michael, Jessica had given birth to a son, Connor, who has Down syndrome. The diagnosis led to the dissolution of her relationship with her son’s father. A heartbroken Jessica trudged on as a single mother. Michael had seen the light of hope burn out for coffee farmers in his home town of Nkabune when, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the government and corrupt officials began to take a majority of the profits. Michael grew up on a coffee farm, so the situation affected him deeply. “You could see the joy disappear. People couldn’t afford to send their kids to school,” Michael said.
Though they admit their friends were skeptical when they married in 2005, they describe their marriage as strong and happy. They often finish each other’s sentences — Jessica in a calm Midwestern dialect and Michael with a jubilant Kenyan accent. Michael has a 23-year-old daughter, Theresa Gituma from Kenya, who is in the United States studying nursing. He adopted Connor in 2008. Michael and Jessica have since added two more children to the family —Sarafina, 10, and Gabriel, 8.
Michael grew up Catholic. At the time of their marriage, Jessica identified as Pentecostal. Initially, Jessica had no desire to convert. “I had presumptions. I was hesitant. I just wasn’t familiar with Catholicism.” But several years into their marriage she woke up startled during the night, convinced God was calling her to “follow your husband.” She went through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and was confirmed at St. Mary Parish-Oskaloosa in 2013. “It was the most challenging and amazing experience.”
Shortly before Jessica’s confirmation, the couple helped the Pella and Oskaloosa parishes to problem solve after receiving news that then-parochial vicar Father Ron Hodges was being called away to a temporary assignment in Davenport. The parish wrestled with the possibility of having to drop some weekday Masses. Michael’s brother, Father Charles Gituma, was serving in Kenya at the time. Michael and Jessica suggested to then-pastor Father Jeffry Belger the possibility of having Fr. Charles come to the area temporarily to help out. His home diocese and Bishop Martin Amos of the Davenport Diocese approved the arrangement. At the time, Fr. Belger called the arrangement a miracle. Fr. Charles had the privilege of witnessing the baptism of Jessica and the children at the Easter Vigil Mass in 2013, where she was also confirmed. Fr. Charles served in Pella and Oskaloosa until this past January, when he returned to Kenya. Jessica is amazed at how everything worked out. “God has plans bigger than ourselves.”
Michael earned a bachelor’s degree in business in 2011 and an MBA in 2013. The idea of selling fair trade items appealed to him because of his first-hand experience of corruption that impacted farmers and workers in Kenya. He began selling handmade fair trade gifts at trade shows, later turning to coffee, which Jessica sold at farmers’ markets. She has a BA in psychology and an MBA in business leadership and was employed in social services.
As the idea to open a coffee shop in Oskaloosa began to take form, Jessica resigned to join her husband in the business venture. They became certified to roast and brew fair trade beans a few months ago, using beans from Rwanda, Columbia, Ethiopia, Peru, Guatemala and Indonesia. Customers can enjoy a cup of coffee in the shop, or take a bag home.
“People from all walks of life come in … They seem to fully appreciate what we are doing,” Jessica said. Their parish, too, has been supportive and prayerful. Michael noted that the parish puts a listing for the shop in the bulletin each week.
Their son Connor is a constant fixture at the shop – and so are other young adults with developmental disabilities. Jessica wants the shop to serve as a place where people like Connor can learn practical life and job skills so they have better opportunities for finding work later on.
While the shop serves as a way for Jessica and Michael to live out their desire to help others, they have one unfinished task. Michael was disappointed to discover that fair trade programs are not well established in Kenya. The couple hopes to do some advocacy work in Kenya to help establish a program there, one that hopefully will help coffee farmers. “We want to be the first people to bring fair trade to my community in Kenya. That’s our main goal (moving forward),” Michael said.
Through their journey of love, faith and work, Jessica said God has been a guiding force. “God provides you with what you need. Lean closer to God and you find he’ll provide you with peace, joy and wisdom.”