Cold sunlight glints off silver as I walk up the steps. I push open the door and the warmth of the diner washes over me. Sharon is moving a white cloth with determined focus as she wipes the counter. She looks up as I move towards a booth in her section.
“Yes, thank you,” I reply.
“No cream, right?”
The diner is quiet. At 11:00 on a Friday morning, I slide into a red-cushioned booth with a table rounded with silver on its edges—one that makes me remember the table in Mama’s kitchen in the 1950s—and presided over by a big container full of sugar (the kind you pour), salt and pepper shakers and yes, a mini-jukebox with selections that still feature Patsy Cline and Conway Twitty.
As Sharon puts a cup of hot coffee down in front of me, I tell her what I want to eat—two eggs overlight, patty sausage, one slice of toast—and in what looks like one long motion, she disappears into the kitchen, yelling out my order. I hardly have time to look upat the muted TV that constantly shows Fox News, or down to pull out my I-phone to check e-mails, before she reappears with a steaming hot breakfast.
As I eat, I think about my “to do” list for Holy Week. Things that have not yet been crossed off. Young people with whom I need to talk, to see if they will read for our Passion Narrative on Passion Sunday. Liturgy yet to be written for the Holy Wednesday Contemplative Prayer & Healing service. Sermons yet to be written for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunday.
In this 1950’s local silver diner, no one cares. I am anonymous. Someone who is hungry on a Friday morning. They either don’t know or don’t care that I have a faith community, that I lead one faith community on Main Street. That Holy Week is almost here. I am simply someone who is, for a few minutes, just part of this particular community. This community has some interesting folks. The owner who sits in his small office, counting money and getting ready to deposit payroll. The tattooed cook in the back. The man who often lurches around in unsteady gait as he buses tables—now eating his own breakfast on a diner stool at the counter.
Two middle-aged men walk in, looking like they have been two days without shaving. One announces,
“I wanna sit where I can see Keno.” There is only cryptic conversation after that—interrupted briefly by Sharon asking for their order—as both men stare above my head at the Keno game in progress. She disappears through swinging doors again and I can hear her announce to the cook,
“Two scrapple sandwiches on white.”
Because I am an Episcopal priest, and because I practically cut my teeth on a Southern Baptist church pew in my father’s church, I tend to think of community in faith terms. I know I am in a distinct minority these days. In the South, people used to ask—and rather freely, I must admit—the question “What’s your church home?” In other words, they assumed you have one. I have not lived in the South for many years, but my guess is that this question is still asked in some places.
Yet the assumption that people have a church home has changed dramatically, whether you live in the South or somewhere else. Most of the world has moved on, into a post-modern, post-Christian place. Young people find the Church irrelevant. Lots of people, both young and older, have wearied of Christians who say one thing and do another. Of course the viewpoints of conservative Christians still manage to get a lot more press than liberal ones. One might well argue that conservatives have promoted their positions about scripture and theology much better than liberals. And regardless of position on the theological spectrum, I would argue that most folks these days talk about the importance of scripture (sadly, Episcopalians among them), yet don’t take the time actually to READ scripture with mind and heart. However, that is a subject for another day. I digress.
On this mid-March morning, I sit in an old diner that has existed in this town since the 1950’s. Its bathrooms smell of a Clorox-filled mop. Its red cushions are smooth from years of peoples’ bottoms sliding across them Its round silver-trimmed bar stools still beckon with an invitation to spin them like I did as a child in such a place.
The waitress has probably done this job for all of her adult life. Her face is lined, her hair gray. She notes to the cashier that her feet hurt. Yes, I imagine they do. I imagine she has walked miles in this diner. Scrubbed that counter countless times. Filled sugar containers, re-filled salt and pepper shakers, stuffed the silver napkin holders until they bulge. Stood and shook her head when tight-fisted or contrary people have left a pittance of a tip (or worse, no tip.)
She is a member of this particular community. So, for a few minutes, am I. What do we have in common? I have never asked her what gives her life meaning or what gives her joy. I have never mouthed the words, “What’s your church home?”or even “Do you have a church home?” I suspect she would look at me as if I were one of the homeless folks who sit at the counter and talk to themselves. That is not her language. That is not her world of experience.
Yet in this community, I can still bring God’s presence in my life with me. I can greet her by name. I can say “thank you, Sharon,” when she brings my breakfast. I can smile gratefully when she comes over without asking to top off my cup of coffee. I can press a 20% tip into her hand as I leave, and as she says “Have a good day,” I can respond, “You, too, Sharon.” Is this the language of faith? Perhaps not. But I hope that on some level, it is the language of God’s love. God’s unconditional, radical, hospitable love—in the middle of an old diner, with people who cook someone else’s breakfast. With people who hang onto the Keno game like their lives depend on it. With people who rely on someone’s generosity to tip them well and whose feet hurt.
If she ever happens to wander into my community, I hope we will welcome her with at least the same respect she gives me when I wander into hers.
© Sheila N. McJilton
Pictures by McJilton