Ever been to a Waffle House … after midnight? That’s when the strange ones come out, and when Waffle House spirituality, yes, spirituality, reveals itself. I realized that one night, in Louisville, Ky., when the plane was late, the taxi expensive, and my stomach empty. The Waffle House was next door to my hotel, a midnight experience somewhere between the PBS Newshour and Saturday Night Live. When the waitress came over (by the way, never ever create difficulty for Waffle House waitresses), I ordered a waffle (of course) and took stock of the patrons: a considerable Caucasian crowd of truckers, couples, little coveys of teens, truckers, transients (like me), and some guys who drive trucks. That’s when the spirituality of the place hit me.
First of all, it just felt safe. Sure, a couple of the diners looked a little worse for wear, but that’s Waffle House after midnight, edgy but safe. Second, that sense of safety and lateness created possibilities for spontaneous community, like the posse of young women who came in announcing that one of their number had just gotten engaged. Before our waitress took their order, the honoree extended her left hand, revealing the new diamond ring. Then came the blessing, at once celebrative and cautionary, from a midnight mentor in a Waffle House apron: “That’s great, honey,” the waitress declared, “it’s a beautiful ring. But be careful, ain’t nothin’ free.” Here endeth the lesson.
Waffle Houses are indeed iconic, or can be, especially in the American South. Kenny Peavy makes a case for that in Waffle House Prophets: Poems inspired by Sacred People and Places (2015), writing: “There is a sacred place found only in the United States, at least one per interstate exit in some places. It is a sanctuary welcoming all walks of life and flavors of humanity.”
I remembered all that when news broke that in the wee hours of April 22, a young white male, naked except for a green jacket, embarked on a killing spree at the Waffle House in the Antioch section of Nashville, Tenn. With AR-15 blazing, he murdered two people outside, then another two inside, wounding several others. The four deceased individuals were young people of color, three African Americans, one Latino. Another African American, James Shaw, Jr. grabbed the gun, tossing it behind the counter, an act of bravery that sent the killer running into a nearby wooded area. The suspect, Travis Reinking, yet another white male with a semi-automatic weapon and a history of mental problems, was arrested a day later. We don’t know yet if race was a factor in the killings.
In the deadly flash of that AR-15, Kenny Peavy’s iconic “welcoming sanctuary,” joined the interminable company of schools, churches, schools, concerts, schools, and other once-but-no-longer-safe-places in the United States. Be careful, honey, in 21st-century America ain’t nowhere safe.
And then there’s Starbucks, another iconic American oasis, whose sense of (upscale) community is similarly celebrated by coffee-lovers and aspiring literaries alike. The Starbucks mission statement is at once concise, creative, and cutesy: “to inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time,” an iconic achievement lauded in online anthologies of coffeehouse poetry like this 2011 “Ode to Starbucks” by E.R. Helmke:
apple plus chai tea
hot liquid relaxes nerves
the stress disappears
the smell of coffee
peacefulness and happiness
reminders of home
stick around for hours
keep calm and drink some coffee
Helmke’s idyllic paean to Starbucks crashed and burned recently when a Philadelphia store manager called the cops and had two African American men arrested when they allegedly refused to leave the premises after being denied use of restroom facilities because they had not purchased food on site. Although the men contended that they delayed ordering while waiting on a (white) colleague to arrive for a business meeting, they were cuffed, and carted off by police. No time to “stick around for hours” that day.
That local injustice created such national furor that Starbucks’ CEO not only apologized but also announced the company “will be closing its more than 8,000 company-owned stores in the United States on the afternoon of May 29 to conduct racial-bias education geared toward preventing discrimination in our stores.” Nonetheless, the incident highlighted continuing racial issues such as persistent white fear of black males; recurring overreaction by law enforcement (the police chief later apologized); and the incipient racism that stalks almost every level of American life, divisions even our most iconic “reminders of home” cannot evade or ignore with latte and a blueberry scone.
Which brings us to the Church. Mass shootings like those in Charleston, S.C., and Sutherland Springs, Texas, have shattered the false security of our most iconic ecclesiastical environs. Truth to tell, that reality sometimes causes me to calculate options for taking cover should the sanctuary where I’m preaching or worshiping be invaded by a shooter. Worship in American churches now demands both spiritual and physical vulnerability of us all, an eerie link with our early Christian forebears.
And what if outsiders perceive our well-crafted mission statements and misplaced actions as evidence of a kind of bait-and-switch-gospel, piously claiming that in Christ there is neither Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female, while periodically mobilizing the theological police when folks inside and outside our iconic ecclesial communities don’t conform to our ways of doing, being, seeing gospel as quickly or thoroughly as we demand. How many Americans think the church is a safe place, only to discover it isn’t, at least not for them.
I write these words while sitting in Panera Bread, where at the table next to me a guy in a camouflage jacket is drinking coffee and mumbling incoherently, getting louder and angrier with each new java refill, a so far harmless but continuing reminder of the fragility and vulnerability present in even our safest sanctuaries. And in ourselves, with or without camouflage jackets.