Bullied at school, then stuck in an endless series of jobs he hated, John Sweeney despaired of finding a role in life. But then he discovered the Suspended Coffee movement. Not only did it inspire thousands of people around the world, it also gave him the strength to carry on living.
One of the ironies in the life of Irishman John Sweeney – who has done more than anyone else to popularise the Suspended Coffee movement – is that he can’t stand coffee. “I had two cups the other day and I had such palpitations I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I much prefer tea,” he said.
But the Suspended Coffee movement is only superficially about coffee. Fundamentally, it’s about creating a spirit of community and kindness, which is what John found so inspira- tional. The idea is that when a customer buys a cup of coffee for themselves, they can donate a ‘suspended’ one for a stranger to enjoy. “It could be a ‘cup of warmth’ for a homeless person, or a ‘cup of hope’ for someone well-to-do who is down on his luck,” said John. “Anyone can be having a bad day and a lot of cafes offer suspended coffee without judgment to anyone who asks. They might also give some randomly to regular clients to build community spirit or organise a meet-up with free coffees for a local mothers’ group. Some cafes go on to the streets, giving coffees to people down on their luck.”
The sense of meaning John gained from developing the Suspended Coffee movement has saved him from a life of depression, ill health and poverty. Until he discovered Suspended Coffee in 2013, he had spent his whole life lurching from one disaster to another. His upbringing in Cork could have been straight from the pages of Angela’s Ashes. Bullied at school by children and beaten up by teachers, he was consigned to the scrapheap by his career guidance counsellor.
“I kept saying I wanted to work with people so they told me the most realistic chance of that was to leave school at 15 and become a plumber. That was a bad choice for me personally but it was also a bad choice for the people whose homes I flooded. I became a terrible plumber,” he said.
John was in and out of work for the next 12 years. Meanwhile, he got married and started a family. But a sense of meaning- lessness plagued him. His desire to do something for the community would not go away and he began volunteering with charities helping homeless people get back into education. His own efforts to get into college to study social sciences, however, were rebuffed at every turn. By the time John read about the Suspended Coffee movement in 2013, he was a depressed insomniac. But then the hoped-for miracle occurred.
“It was 17 March 2013 at 2.30 in the morning. As usual I couldn’t sleep and I was reading a blog about an old tradition of Suspended Coffee in Naples. I’d never heard about it, but it was to change my life. I’d had health issues all my life, going into hospital two or three times every year with pneumonia or bad asthma. But once Suspended Coffee gave me a purpose, all the health issues went away,” he said.
The Neapolitan tradition of the ‘caffè sospeso’ he read about had been popular during World War II, before enjoying a revival in recent years as Italy went through severe economic hardship. It has become a gesture of solidarity in the face of severe cuts to state cultural and welfare budgets. Across Italy, participating bars display Suspended Coffee labels in windows. In some cafes, customers throw receipts into unused coffee pots. In others, the cafes hang the receipts in the window. In some southern Italian towns, they now sell ‘suspended sandwiches’ and the Italian bookstore Feltrinelli offers ‘suspended books’.
Naples was the logical birthplace for the Suspended Coffee movement. For one thing, Italy is famously a land of coffee drinkers. More than 90% of Italian families drink coffee at home and there is a cafe for every 490 Italians. The second reason pertains to the special character of Naples itself. Coffee bars are gathering places for the whole of society in the animated districts of this beautiful southern Italian city. They are where politicians, artists, men in suits and the homeless mingle to swap stories.
When John Sweeney read about the Suspended Coffee movement, he may not have identified with the Italian passion for coffee – Ireland, after all, has the third largest per capita tea consumption in the world – but he was deeply impressed by the spirit of kindness. He set about trying to popularise Suspended Coffees around the world. His instantaneous success took him by surprise.
Within months, John’s Facebook page had more than a quarter of a million followers and there were 2,000 cafes in 34 countries signed up. John populated the page with inspiring news stories and received messages from all over the planet saying the movement had given them a reason to get out of bed. The ‘suspended’ concept took on a life of its own. In Taiwan, for example, a restaurant in New Taipei began offering ‘suspended noodles’ after the ownerYen Lin-ying read John’s Facebook page.
“I threw myself into it and worked 17 or 18 hours a day for the first 18 months spreading the word. I built up networks of volunteers with different skills. I had found my purpose in life and my mental health issues went away. I feel a million per cent better than before,” he said.
Despite his success, John was making no money out of his work and the family were surviving on benefits. “It was a struggle to put food on the table for my wife and four kids for the first 18 months. Our electricity was cut off three times in the space of a year. My wife kept saying ‘where’s it all going and what’s happening?’ I said, ‘I don’t know but for the first time I’m doing something I want to do’,” he said.
Recently, however, there have been signs that John’s financial fortunes are changing. A British mentoring charity called the MOE (Ministry of Entrepreneurship) Foundation admired what he was doing and paid for him to train as a motivational coach. In November and December last year, he spent three weeks on a course, 16 floors up at Citibank in Canary Wharf. “We’re still struggling financially but I said to my wife that for the first time in our lives I can see a realistic future,” he said.
John is on the verge of launching a social enterprise that will sell ethically-sourced coffee to fund coaching and mentoring for teens and young adults. Meanwhile, he is receiving more and more offers for his motivational speeches. In March, he delivered a TEDx talk in Guernsey.
“I asked people to tag, text or tweet three people they’d like to meet for a coffee. It could be someone in their community, a relative or a friend at the other side of the world on Skype. The idea is to give people the gift of your time and not underestimate the impact it can have. I asked singer Ed Sheeran, comedian Ellen DeGeneres and the Irish musician Niall Breslin to meet me. It was a bit cheeky but we all need to encourage people to do this as it can change people’s lives for the better.”
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