(Photo by Jessica Silveira on Unsplash)
One Sunday, about ten months after starting my first pastorate, as my congregation gathered around the coffee maker, I asked myself, “Why are these people here? The Sunday morning conversations revolved around the fate of the Texas Christian University football team the day before and who was kicked out Survivor this week. People were gathered ten and fifteen deep around the coffee urn and donuts. They could have coffee and donuts at home, I said to myself. Why come to church for mediocre coffee and cold donuts and sit there chewing on fat from yesterday’s football game? Can’t we talk about God? Ecclesiology? Inclusive language? Justice? Liturgy? Something that matters?
The confused equation of coffee + donuts = Christianity had bothered me for a long time. It even led me to theological school, where in the first minute of the first day of introductory ministry, the teacher asked each of us what we hoped to accomplish in our ministries. “I hope,” I began awkwardly, “to help save the main church. Uselessness. I hope to make worship as appealing as soccer, donuts, and television.
“It’s quite a trinity,” the professor joked. Gathering steam, I quickly clarified that I was “fairly certain that revitalizing worship has something to do with deconstructing the ubiquitous church coffee maker.”
“Don’t interfere with a Christian’s coffee,” he pleaded.
But, frustrated that God had to compete every Sunday with something as mundane as coffee (and as deadly as fried, sugar-glazed donuts), I researched my handout thinking that I could convince the professor (and major Protestants in general) to put aside the coffee maker and God on the front line. I read Clifford Geertz Interpretation of cultures in order to master the function of symbols, in particular the symbolism of the coffee maker. Geertz convincingly demonstrates that religious symbols not only function within a culture, but are themselves shaped by the culture.
Geertz would have recognized that the coffee pot as a cultural symbol is as important to North American Christianity as the religious symbolism in the shrine is to worship. Reading it, I had to admit that my desire to kick coffee and donuts reflected my desire for a purer, more church-specific symbol system, something set apart and “Superior” to the cultural context of football and Survivor and coffee. It was disheartening to say the least to admit that for cultural anthropologists, the coffee maker was not in competition with God but was part of a complex system of religious and sociological significance.
But four years later, I was serving a congregation in the heart of Texas that was, in every way, too much in love with coffee and donuts. I offered courses on mystics and the love of God (little followed). I offered parenting classes (well attended, but reviews were filled with complaints about my inability to provide “treats and coffee”).
I did a six-week liturgy study for the church’s most influential adult Sunday school class. (You had to wait for an invitation to address the class, even if you were the pastor.) The five women who were already constrained by the liturgy took many notes and were on fire at the end of my class. But no one else in the audience seemed to have noticed a word I had said on the subject. I began to wonder if, as my ministry studies had suggested, my congregation expected me to do the heavy lifting according to God, and that they would conscientiously retire from the coffee pot when the preaching was over. about to start in order to find out what my big job had been working on that week.
Twenty years later, as a preaching and worship teacher, I read Tom Long’s captivating book Beyond the wars of worship. He tells the story of a young Jew who accuses his father of hypocrisy: his father is agnostic but faithfully attends the temple. Her father replied, “There are many reasons to go to the temple. Take Goldman. He comes to speak to God. Me? Well, I’m coming over to talk to Goldman.
Talking to God, talking to Goldman: two great impulses but different motivations for going to church. This little parable held the missing link for me. While Geertz helpfully explained how religious symbols worked in my congregation, the mystery of why the faithful gathered remained. the Why was (and is) the community. A subset of my community met every Sunday to talk to God, but the other subset (much larger) came to church to talk to each other.
Until the Eucharist, that is to say. At the Eucharist, I realized, everyone was talking to God. The shrine was so quiet I could hear my pulse. Then? A closing hymn, a blessing, a quick obligatory shake of the pastor’s hand on the way to the cafe. At least coffee time after worship included finger sandwiches and fruit platters.
But it wasn’t until the second Easter of the second COVID tide of not being in church for 14 months in a row that I finally figured it out.
I woke up, I greeted the day, I said my morning prayers. Then I shouted to my husband, “I want coffee at church. Not our coffee. Not McDonald’s cafe. Not Starbucks coffee. No espresso or latte or macchiato or americano or cappuccino. Only the church cafe will do! My voice grew louder and more urgent as I continued to list each particular type of coffee that was unsatisfying on Easter.
My husband asked me if I was going to “totally agree”. I screamed, “No, I’m not okay. I want coffee at church.
“But my darling,” he began, “you despise church cafe. The church café, in all its manifestations, is anathema to you!
“Not since I haven’t had coffee in church for almost two years. Now I fully understand its importance. And, anyhow, the coffee is good, much better now that we go to a Lutheran church. The Lutherans are having coffee on the floor. It’s an art. I need coffee from the Lutheran church. I was crying now.
Actually, I wanted to see Paula and Helen and Ted and Stephen and Joene and Allyson and Ricky and Phyllis and Scott — and have a cup of coffee with them against the backdrop of the church. I would even like to see a hologram of Geertz there, sipping coffee with us, smiling. A few of us (very few) would talk about God. Most of us would talk about the drought and our governor’s brilliant handling of COVID and how to fund the much-needed new church roof.
I closed my eyes, at home with my kitten and my husband on the best day of the year that we should be able to be in church, and I sobbed. For the missing almost two years of our life. Lack of church coffee and conversation. For the desire to be kept in a cultural context of symbols that can see us through eternity. But above all: so that the pain is contained in the human-divine embrace that is the church.
A version of this article appears in the print edition under the title “Church Cafe”.