2017 US Barista Champion: Christians, Make People Wonder Why You’re Weird

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When Kyle Ramage first stepped foot onto the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, he thought he was preparing for vocational ministry. Little did he know that God was preparing him for a different path.

He would soon enter the mission field of the coffee industry.

Ramage, who hails from Mississippi, graduated from Southeastern Seminary in 2014 with an M.A. in Christian Ministry. Yet his career has taken an unexpected turn. He worked at a local coffee shop, excelled at his craft and now works for Mahlkonig USA, a coffee grinder manufacturer in Durham.

Given his zeal for coffee, Ramage competed in the 2017 United States Barista Championship. To his great surprise, he won. Next, he will compete for the World Championship in Seoul, South Korea. (You can read a full account of Ramage’s victory at Sprudge.)

Recently, we had chance to chat with Ramage about coffee, faith, work and his time at Southeastern. Here’s our conversation (edited for clarity).

In your winning performance at the United States Barista Championship, you didn’t simply brew a cup of coffee. You employed creativity and technical proficiency. Can you speak to that creativity and how you got involved in the coffee industry?

With every industry, there comes a point where you have to interact with it on a level that’s deeper than normal people would. It’s the same way that our Southeastern Seminary professors and students interact with the Scriptures in a way that is much more in depth and artistic than your normal person would. I feel like that’s the same with almost every industry.

And being in coffee for me just came very naturally. With coffee, the Lord kept opening doors, kept making ways, helping me advance and make changes and make moves. It’s too perfect to say otherwise. The Lord has a plan for me in this industry. It’s cool to watch it play out in front of me.

But that’s what drew me in. The doors kept opening. Things just kept happening to make it work. I thought, I can’t ignore this any longer. I came here for seminary, and I completed my degree. But the Lord had me go in a totally different direction by my second year in Wake Forest. It was really cool to see God change my plans — and to be willing to allow them to change, even though this wasn’t at all what I planned for my life.

But coffee is where the Lord has me at the moment. The drive and the push — and the call — is so profound. I think I would be doing a disservice if I were to leave the coffee industry. I’d be doing something wrong.

The world is organized in a way that gives glory to God. Our work is part of that.

How does your faith and experience at Southeastern Seminary shape the work you do day to day?

Going to seminary makes you a good thinker. It makes you think well about the world around you, and how to interact with it. I think having that ability to think well was very helpful. Of course, honesty, integrity, transparency — all these things are huge as being a faithful believer, as well as being a faithful believer in business.

It’s easy to swindle, lie or cheat your way to the top in work. It’s easy to take the shortcuts or the easy way out, but having that integrity and that drive to do right by others and to do good in the sight of the Lord is huge.

And work is about being able to interact with people. Companies do need money to function, but they are driven by people. That’s my view of work. Yes, I do something, but I do something with people. If I can love them, share Christ’s love with them, support them and maybe be a Christian influence for them that they may not be used to, God can use that.

The coffee industry is not a believer-saturated place. Many I call friends are gay, transgender, or otherwise. Some people I know are void of Christian influence — or a Christian they even know and respect. That’s been my goal. I want to be a respected member in the coffee industry, but be a distinct Christian at the same time

It’s hard. It’s easy to soften on some views. At the same time, I don’t want to be the bullhorn-carrying, sign-waving, “turn-or-burn” kind of person. I want to love people and meet them where they are when they’re that far away from the faith.

When they announced you as the winner, what was going through your mind?

Well, my brain basically melted. There’s a video out there of my reaction, and it’s … I’m floored. The lady I’m standing next to, Andrea Allen, is an amazing, amazing woman. She and her husband run Onyx Coffee lab in Springdale, Arkansas. I thought she’d won the whole time. She was the favorite to win the whole competition (in my eyes, anyway), and it was she and I standing up there. So, I thought, she won. Second is great. Second is amazing. I don’t work in coffee on a daily basis, so this is amazing.

But for me to win was just another signpost, another affirmation that the Lord has great plans, and that if I’m willing to put the time and the work in, he’s going to do great things, and I’m going to get to be a part of it. That’s another affirmation of his good plan that I don’t understand, but I’m happy to be along for the ride.

What tips would you offer to believers who are in situations where they don’t see that their work matters to God?

I truly believe at my core that the world is organized in a way that gives glory to God, regardless. Our work is part of that.

Maybe the job you’re doing, or the thing you’re doing for money, is a very subtle act of worship, but your heart is what’s telling of believers. When the job is terrible, the pay is awful and the people are frustrating, if you’re able to respond in kindness and love and support for your co-workers and your customers and for your boss, that’s what’s going to differentiate us.

And make people question. “This guy is weird. What’s wrong with him? Why is he so weird about being nice to people, or loving or giving to others? He doesn’t owe those people anything.” That’s a way we can get into conversations. And those kinds of conversations are where you start to change people’s minds about what it means to be a Christian person. Not that we can really do that, but we give avenues for the Spirit to change the way people think about the faith.

For instance, I worked with a guy who was an atheist when we were working together. Through me and a few others ministering to him, he eventually worked his way into agnosticism. And then he worked his way into theism. And I can’t speak for his faith in Christ, but he is a spiritual person who will talk about the Bible, talk about the gospel, talk about our Christian faith and not be hostile to it.

I haven’t seen him in a few years. He lives on the West Coast now. But ministering to people in that kind of way is huge — where they are, at work. We spend more time at work a lot of times than we do with our families.

What’s your greatest takeaway from your time at Southeastern Seminary?

There were so many things that were so impactful on my heart and life during that time. I guess my greatest takeaway was meeting people who love the Lord and weren’t weirdos.

I became friends with Tracy McKenzie, an Old Testament and Hebrew professor (again, no idea how that worked out). Through coffee and through conversations I became friends with a few other professors who were elders at my church who are normal people — or, most of them, very intelligent normal people. They can have conversations about sports, weather, life — and they aren’t just one trick-pony folks. They’re real people who have real problems, who have real stuff that they’re working on, but are deeply impacted by the Spirit and by their faith and by the Scriptures.

That personal aspect has been huge. This seminary experience has influenced the way I think about the world, life, work, joy and pain. It was great. It totally transformed the way I look at the world and look at people.

What verse guides your work?

1 Corinthians 10:31 for me is just clearly, obviously important. Dr. Akin talks about it all the time. “Whatever you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”

That’s just the beauty of what work and light is, in a lot of ways. Living life that’s glorifying to God is how we minister to my generation. I want to be that real, flawed, transparent, but totally loving and caring person.

Kyle Ramage (M.A. Christian Ministry) works at Mahlkonig USA and serves as a Small Group Leader at North Wake Church. You can follow him on Twitter.

Image Credit: Charlie Burt and Liz Chai / Sprudge Media Network

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The L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture seeks to engage culture as salt and light, presenting the Christian faith and demonstrating its implications for all areas of human existence.

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