Every decade or so, I re-invent myself. Maybe I’m easily distracted, or maybe it’s that I’m easily bored. Whatever it is, the pattern continues: learn a skill, work at the skill, master the skill, move on. The skills usually build upon each other, but sometimes not — like the birding interlude at NJ Audubon in the nineties. But summers as a tax clerk led to public accounting led to risk management led to birding (?) led to the pastorate led to…coffee. Yep. I became a barista last week.
It’s not quite as arbitrary as it seems. I’ve been interested in coffee house ministry ever since I first read Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place in seminary. Oldenburg talks about the “third place,” a social place — different and apart from the first place (home) and the second place (work). It was an edgy idea then and it’s still edgy now. When I first heard of it, some scholars were trying to make the case that the Church should be the third place. In fact churches have served in this way many times throughout history. But that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening right now. People are staying away from “Institutional” Church more and more for a myriad of reasons. For whatever reason in God’s purpose, churches are not quite filling the bill right now. Other third places might be pubs, parks and gyms. I thought a coffee shop would be a great third place, and also may have the potential to birth a new form of “church” – i.e. a community of seekers trying to follow Jesus. My childhood minister, Chester Winters, used to frequent a coffee house called “What’s Going On Here?” in Berwyn, PA in the seventies. I think he was just forty years before his time.
Lately, I’ve found myself in an in-between time. Moving away from congregational ministry toward advocacy has proven difficult to sustain. The non-profit world is forever having to secure funding in order to stay in business. I’ve had mixed success in this, so it has become clear that I needed to strike out in a new direction. Starbucks beckoned. I won’t go in to all the reasons right now, but it’s a good fit for me and I’m fortunate enough to be able to seize the opportunity to learn new skillsand a new industry with the company that literally wrote the book.
I started last week and trained for two six-hour shifts. My mentors were in their early twenties. They were hip and un-phased that their student was old enough to be their mother. The store I’m training in is one of the busiest in New Jersey with over 1,000 customers a day. The other Starbucks partners (aka “employees”) all jokingly say, “Welcome to baptism by fire.” How apt. And they don’t even know I’m a pastor.
There’s a lot to learn: company mission statements and standards, customer service, beverage basics, point of sale, yada, yada. All is new to me…I don’t have a lick of retail experience. So I’ve not been very helpful in terms of output yet, but thankfully they don’t expect me to be. When it was crowded and the line of customers snaked around the counter waiting for their drinks, I tried to stay out of the way and absorb as much as I could. The one useful thing I could do was clean. That’s part of the job of every barista. Clean the counters, the cabinets, the dishes, the condiments bar, the floors, the bathrooms. Yup. I don’t even clean my own bathroom, but I’m cleaning the public restrooms at Starbucks.
So the first, best and most important thing I’m reclaiming at Starbucks is my humanity. It is a job that grounds me and connects me with others. I needed — even craved — a perspective adjustment. Ivory towers are insidious things, built over the course of a lifetime. They provide privileged seclusion and separate us from the realities of others’ lives. The steps of my ivory tower included ambition, career, education, resources, expensive tastes and unspoken privilege. We begin to believe we can only belong with others who match us, step for step in their own ivory towers.
On my first day, when I was asked to sweep the floors, I went out into the café with a broom and that thing you sweep stuff into. I swept around customers feet and had my first taste of being completely invisible. I was within inches of every customer and yet barely interacted with any of them. Once or twice I bumped someone’s foot and quietly apologized. They barely acknowledged it. They were not being rude or arrogant or even dismissive. They simply did not see me. And I found the anonymity strangely satisfying . At least this was true for me. No doubt, it is a painful experience for some to be among the unseen; those for whom it is a chronic condition, and not by their own choosing. But for me it was a welcome respite and a chance to observe people like the proverbial fly-on-the-wall. The day before I began work at Starbucks, I sat at the very same tables and stared at my iPhone while sipping my Quad Grande Decaf Americano. Did someone sweep the floor under my feet? I don’t know. I didn’t see them.
We filter many things from our conscious attention. There are just too many stimuli for our brains to acknowledge everything. This is one of the first principles of birding-by-ear: You have to remove the filters that keep you from hearing bird song. These filters slide away in different magnitudes, the first one or two allow you to hear 30 or so common songs right in your own back yard. But even after birding for 20 years or so, I just figured out I was filtering out bobolink migration chatter. Now this may sound ridiculous to you, but the point is, even if you think you’re good at something, like acknowledging theexistence of people around you, it’s likely there are filters yet to conquer.
So that’s my project this fall; to connect with my own humanity at Starbucks. Stop by and I’ll brew you a drink and I’ll delight in your presence.