I’m writing these words from Chick-fil-A. Yes, I know: as a self-identified progressive Christian and pastor, many of my progressive and liberal friends will be surprised that I’m here.
Because, you know, we live in a world of “us” and “them,” and in that world Chick-fil-A for many political and theological progressives is clearly “them.” I am not “them.” Or maybe, at least in some ways, I am the “them”; who knows?
I’m not sure it matters. What does matter, however you parse it, is that “us” and “them” don’t belong together. Apparently, even over chicken strips.
Given my theological convictions, some people assume I shouldn’t be patronizing this fast food establishment. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I should be boycotting and noting my protest on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter each time I pass by the ubiquitous red rooster’s head on the way to some less-appetizing fast food.
So, I understand. But here’s my story (and, at least for now, I’m sticking with it).
Sixteen years ago my wife and I entered the elementary school chapter of parenting, and since the school was pretty much on my way to the office, I became the bus for our two sons. For the next 12 years it was my job, with a beloved routine that I still miss: hit snooze, hit snooze again, get up, dress, finish hustling the boys out to the car (and almost invariably going back for the forgotten book, paper or lunch bag), drive two miles, deliver two young minds to the doors of exciting possibility, pat a head, tousle some hair, watch my future in the rearview mirror, and head to church.
“Often the point seems to be that we not only need to stand with ‘us,’ but to stand against ‘them.’”
At the corner just down from church were several coffee options. (The coffee itself was not an option!) One morning I passed up the Caribou, McDonald’s and Exxon alternatives and turned unceremoniously into the parking lot of the fast food restaurant on the corner (for some of my friends, “the chicken who shall not be named”).
The place was bright, as were the faces behind the registers, and the coffee was black and hot. I found a table in the corner with an electrical outlet for my laptop. Bingo!
The next morning I made the same choice and parked in the same spot – and I’ve done so most mornings for 16 years. When I walk in, I’m typically met with a somewhat unison greeting of “Morning Pastor!” (I prefer “Russ,” but old habits die hard, and I’ve only convinced a few folks to condescend to using my first name.)
I now drink a cup of iced tea to start my day, because some years back the corporation switched to a brand and flavor of coffee I simply cannot abide. So, when I walk in, my small, half-sweet/half-unsweet cup is ready for me. And the booth in the corner, one of only three with an accessible electrical outlet, has become my office away from the phones and the email and the chaos of the church office.
I’ve written most of my columns for Baptist News Global from that booth and put the finishing touches on two books. Other than to refill my tea three or four times (always with the same litany of “Thank you, Deb/Tami/Wilma/Kenny/Chelsea.…My pleasure!”), no one interrupts me.
Several years ago I was leading the high school baseball booster team, and we were looking for free food for an event. Because I was already a regular, I introduced myself to the owner/operator, hat in hand. She obliged my request for a handout, and we’ve been friends ever since. An active member of her church, she has a heart for her employees, many of whom need more than just a paycheck. The compassion of Christ has also sent her around the globe on various mission ventures, including a recent trip to build a facility in Africa (using a lot of her own money) that trains young women, putting them on a path to courage and a career, personal success and self-sufficiency.
She and I have partnered on several occasions, whether an event at the church, which she is always glad to support, or occasional assistance for a needy employee.
“We all need to take our stands. I’ve been vocal and visible about mine – and I’ll respect you when you draw your lines in a different place.”
So, I am aware that many conscientious, progressive Christians have chosen to protest or boycott their neighborhood Chick-fil-A, whether privately or publicly. I understand why. And you don’t need to remind me of the power of money and that at times organized boycotts have wielded culture-shaping influence. I get it. I understand.
I just understand, also, that we don’t agree on things.
I deliberately made that statement as broad and generic and ironic as possible, because one of the immutable rules of the universe, alongside gravity and taxes, is this: We. Don’t. Agree. The truth is that I don’t know one single person with whom I don’t disagree on at least something.
But in our sadly disagreeable culture some people are constantly demanding that we voice those disagreements at every opportunity, loudly bifurcating “us” and “them,” arguing that in every instance we must stand only with “us.” (But if we disagree about something with everyone, who exactly is “us”?) And often the point seems to be that we not only need to stand with “us,” but to stand against “them.”
If we keep this up, at some point aren’t we all going to be standing alone?
To be sure, I disagree with statements Chick-fil-A’s corporate leadership has made about LGBTQ persons and their committed marriages, and I am just as concerned about the next presidential election as the rest of my progressive friends. I am just as concerned about civility and honor and integrity, and about personal character, which always shapes presidential leadership (or the lack thereof). I’m just not sure that going back to coffee at the Exxon is enough to solve those two problems.
I’ve never hidden who I am from the folks at Chick-fil-A. After all these years I’m still the pastor of the Baptist church around the corner that features a woman in the pulpit every other week and that offers a full welcome to all who will come – rich and poor, black and white, Democrat and Republican – and that gladly offers marital blessings for its gay members.
I’m also still a pastor who values relationship over theological conformity. If Chick-fil-A is going to continue to serve the liberal Baptist from around the corner, I don’t see that drinking their tea and building relationships with their staff is making me unfaithful to my convictions.
We all need to take our stands. I’ve been vocal and visible about mine – and I’ll respect you when you draw your lines in a different place. But if you’d like to get together to discuss all of this, may I suggest a nice spot on the corner and a cup of half-and-half?