The Nigerian-American pastor uses his coffee company to stir up dialogue about the origins of the drink.
John Onwuchekwa’s parents arrived in the US from Nigeria when he was a young boy, and while he hasn’t made as many trips back to the country as he would have liked to, the influence of it on his life has been a constant. “It’s everything,” he tells OkayAfrica. “I carry it with me the same way that I carry my nose or my gap-tooth smile.”
In 2019, he co-founded Portrait Coffee, a company that seeks to “change the picture that comes to mind when folks think of specialty coffee…What was once merely a drink of necessity turned into an ode to our ancestors." The company looks to the likes of Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins, the late novelist Toni Morrison and A Tribe Called Quest for inspiration in naming the individual bags of roast that Portrait sells. Through Portrait, Onwuchekwa aims to share more awareness about the journey coffee makes from its origin, and how it can best be appreciated.
Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Onwuchekwa studied at Dallas Theological Seminary, after graduating college. And when he’s not brewing coffee – or talking about how much he loves it – he’s serving his community in the Historic West End of Atlanta as the pastor of Cornerstone Church.
While Onwuchekwa spends most of his time as a pastor, he’s also become a respected speaker and author, having written two books, We Go On: Finding Joy and Purpose in Life’s Sorrows and Prayer. He also hosts a podcast called Four in the Morning, which is the time he usually wakes up each day.Onwuchekwa spoke to OkayAfrica about his ties to Nigeria and the impact his parents had on his choice of career.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How much did your parents being from Nigeria shape you and your childhood?
It definitely shaped us. There's a type of immigrant that comes over to the United States and they leave their past behind. I heard one scholar say, I think Willie Jennings, he says, ‘There are types of people that come over, and they trade in their ethnic past for an economic future,’ right? And so you'll see it in some of the groups that can identify as white and if they leave their culture behind, their distinction is Polish, Irish, German, for example, and embrace this concept of white. It provides them advantages here in the States, whereas Nigerians don’t do that. We come over and like to keep that. So it was not just ingrained in us but we lived in Houston, where it is basically Nigeria Junior. We constantly grew up, not just around my folks instilling it in us, but networks of people who did their best to retain the best parts of their culture on these shores. So we grew up immersed in American culture and immersed in Nigerian culture. We really didn't have a choice of if we were going to be immersed in one and dip our foot in the next, there was a total double immersion that took place.
In what ways does your Nigerian heritage influence your life now - from being a pastor to founding a coffee company?
It's ingrained and it's a part of me, from work ethic to the pride in who I am and who God has made me to be; in even the small chip that I carry on my shoulder to continue to strive and excel to be the best; that if I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it with all of my heart. It's that DNA that's been passed down from my folks. With coffee, it was that same thing. It was a hobby, and then I was like, if you're gonna go for it, go for it. I am not one of those people that they've got a switch that can turn off; there's a lot of people that have dimmers on their life, where they can say, ‘Oh, I want to try this thing and I just want to try a little bit. I just want to dim the lights up.’ I don't have that; I've got an on and off switch. So if it's on, the floodlights are gonna come on, and I'm gonna do it all the way. I think that's some of the blessing and the curse that my parents gave to me.
When he's not serving his parish, John Onwuchekwa is pouring coffee -- and sourcing it and sharing its story with others.
Photo: John Onwuchekwa
Church plays a big role in some parts of Nigerian culture -- was that something that influenced your decision to become a pastor?
Absolutely. I've grown up in church my whole life, and I do think there are people who have grown up in church their whole life and the unfortunate reality is that in church, like every other institution, there's hypocrisy that exists. There's a lot of people that say that's been the dominant experience they've had in church. I saw something different. I saw this moral consistency, where my parents were better people at home than the ideals that they preached out there. I saw my mom and my dad work hard. I saw my dad spend his time as an accountant and a realtor. I saw my mom go back to school and get her doctorate in education while working full-time and raising five kids. And I also saw them never miss church and bring us with them a lot. I grew up, and saw every morning, the most authentic expression of faith. It wasn't religiosity. It was folks that said, ‘No, we really believe there's a God who made the world, who blessed us, has saved us from countless things, and continues to keep things spinning. And so, if that's the case, then every time that we get up we're going to gather our kids and we're going to pray and thank him.'
So we prayed in the morning. It wasn't the obligatory, rehearsed, rote ‘God, thank you for this food,’ but more with a genuine deep sense of gratitude. It wasn't just piety, but it came out through hands and feet. I think people are often put off from religiosity because they see the inconsistency in between what people say and do. I was turned onto it because I saw the consistency in between what my folks said and did. I just feel like religiosity and spirituality is big in Nigerian culture, as well, and I just felt blessed to have parents that gave me just such a rich, authentic expression of it.
Did you experience any challenges in becoming a pastor?
One, not having many models of what that looks like. A huge turning point in my life was the summer I went to Nigeria after I graduated high school. We were there for a month, and four days before we're getting ready to come back to the States -- long story short -- me and my family get robbed at gunpoint on a dirt road. We were stranded in the middle of nowhere; I'm afraid that I'm going to die and everything that I worked for, is going to be taken from me. I was 17 years old. Through those tears on the ground, I felt like I just saw life clearly. I realized that living a life exclusively for the pursuit of things that you think are going to make you happy is a small life. It just leads you to a small existence, for you to be wrapped up in yourself, and it was there that I found that the pathway to joy doesn't come in things you receive; it comes in giving.
There's a reason why billionaires, regardless of their faith, end up becoming philanthropists because they get to a place where they see, ‘Oh, I've gotten more than anybody else can get and there's still something that I lack,’ and they find a unique joy that comes from giving more than from receiving. So for me, it was on that dirt road it clicked. And I just felt like I was blessed to be able to have that before going to college. Because then I go to school and my mindset is, ‘How do I give? How do I extend myself?’ It just felt like a natural progression for me; it wasn't ‘Let me become a pastor.’ It was, ‘What do people need? How can I give? What are the skill sets that I have?’
"As soon as the portrait in my mind changed, my experience with the drink changed as well," says John Onwuchekwa.
Photo: John Onwuchekwa
Then you create a coffee company - what a great way for you to kind of reconnect back to your African roots…why did you call it Portrait?
Yeah, absolutely. I noticed in all these specialty shops, all across the place, that they all look the same on the inside. They all had the same aesthetic. And the racial makeup of the people on the inside was the same. They were all predominantly white. There weren't people that look like me, that talk like me. And so I just kind of felt like the odd man out; 'Do I belong? Do I fit in here?' And at the time, it was hard to establish a network of Black people that are in coffee. And so I went to books to find out, where did this come from? And I found out, 'Oh, wait a minute. Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia, in Africa. 1200 years ago, and it didn't even make its way to Europe until 400-500 years after the discovery.' And at that point, my mind was blown. Because I had a picture of what coffee was and who it was for. And as soon as my picture of that changed, as soon as the portrait in my mind changed, my experience with the drink changed as well.
And I imagine you get to make sourcing and origin trips to the continent?
Yeah, we are ready to. We haven't been able to make any origin trips, because we started the company at the end of 2019, before the pandemic. But our team is all vaccinated and boosted, and as soon as things calm down just a little bit more, we'll take the whole team. I've already started to travel back but we’re waiting until everybody on the team feels comfortable before we head out.