[Been sitting in my drafts. Yes, still unruly, but it somehow seems timely to launch on this Feast of the Visitation when Mary makes haste through the dangerous hill country of Judea to be of service to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, carrying in her womb the world-consecrating Christ]
I went to a restaurant several summers ago with my wife while we were traveling, and the restaurant owner, who is an eastern European immigrant, came to our table to ask how things were. We told her how much we liked the food and the atmosphere and especially the service. She said, “Good!” And my wife said, “It’s hard to find good service these days, you know?” The floodgates opened and she spoke her mind. I wrote my recollection of it later in my journal:
Yes, Brittany is one of my best. She’s very good and been here for seven years. But you know you’re right it isn’t easy to find good help anymore. I’ve been in this business for many years and can tell you that in the last ten years or so finding good employees gets harder and harder. Makes business harder to run. My experience is few younger people really want to work hard and to pay their dues first, you know what I mean? They’re unreliable, come in late, always want to take time off and don’t have a sense of responsibility, accountability. You know, a sense of commitment to this business. I try to give my employees a sense of ownership. But it’s a revolving door. I try to pay well and be fair and and reward hard work, you know? But if they won’t do the work and stick with it, what can I do? And it’s not like there’s a surplus of jobs.
They show up late day after day and so I have to fire them. They stay out late at night partying and then can’t get up. But the hardest part is so many of them don’t take criticism. They get very offended if you criticize their performance. Come on! So how can you get better? Everything offends them that doesn’t say, “oh you’re awesome,” you know? It’s crazy. Their moms and dads did them a bad deal, I’d say. My mom and dad raised me to be tough and take criticism and work hard and don’t expect anyone to do things for you. They were tough on me because they knew life is tough. Especially for a woman. My dad would say, success is not an accident. And in this economy you can’t survive if you’re half-hearted. But then again without dedicated employees I can’t survive as a business owner. It makes me worry for the future, you know? What will happen? Where will a change come from?
Coincidentally, a few weeks after that conversation I met a young man who came up to speak to me after a talk I gave to a Theology on Tap gathering on “the universal call to holiness.” We ended up staying for over an hour talking. He told me how much my talk spoke to him and to his situation. He then recounted for me a profound experience of Jesus he had at a retreat, after which he became very committed to his Catholic faith. I asked him what he did for a living and said he had worked for the last two and a half years at a local restaurant as a server while he finished his A.A. degree and was hoping to be promoted. I told him how much my wife and I liked that restaurant, but he immediately retorted, “Yeah, sure, the food is good but what happens behind the scenes? It’s bad news.” I was surprised and asked him what he meant. He went on to share some details:
Well, there’s all kinds of crap going on. For example, sexual stuff, like, all the time. The guys watch porn on their phones constantly in the back and then show it around. Even to the girls. And there’s all kinds of sexual relationships, hookups going on all the time. Groping. People constantly talking smack behind other people’s back. It’s just crazy. When I first started I was like, seriously? At a restaurant? You really have to be so strong to resist, though, because it’s in your face all the time. Huge peer pressure. They make it seriously awkward if you refuse the sexual offers.
[I asked him how the managers allow this] Well, the shift managers just turn a blind eye. They know it’s happening but they just want peace. But when the general manager comes everybody acts saintly. And then there’s the super foul language. They’re so polite to customers and then they walk back and their mouth is like a sewer. And they make lewd comments about customers. I mean, I’m not perfect but this is some sick shit. I had no idea a restaurant could be that dysfunctional. I just keep my head down, you know? I mean, I like the work, especially serving the customers. Actually, I would love to be a manager. I know what needs to be done and I could make it better. But right now I just want to get out of there to find a more godly place where I can live my faith radically. I was thinking maybe I could work for God, for the church like you do.
He asked me what I thought. I seized the opportunity. I said:
No! Don’t start at despair and flight. And let’s get this straight — you are working for God. I am working for the institutional church, which means God has called me to be your servant. My ministry is for your mission. I work for the church but you are the church at work. On the streets. Getting employed by the church isn’t any holier, just different. In your work, where you are now, is a whole field of opportunities for greatness. For being radical. You’ve got built into your work a thousand opportunities to exercise hard virtue and to evangelize. If you just surrounded yourself with the like-minded you’ll lose that. I know it’s easier said than done, but where you are now is really where holiness begins and ends for the vast majority of Christians. Out there in the field. Faith with work boots on. Sweaty work.
I told him that this is precisely what my talk was about, was what the church at Vatican II envisioned when it raised up for a new honoring the royal dignity of world-oriented baptismal priesthood. “That’s where Vatican II wanted the epicenter of the new evangelization to be: secular saints.” I added, “Remember what I said, that Baptism and Confirmation set in motion a vocation and a mission to run crazed and headlong out into the midst of the world’s ruins and engage in God’s rebuilding project. THAT is what Catholics mean when they use the word salvation.” He said, “I always thought salvation was of souls.” I said:
Yes, but God doesn’t only want to save your soul, but your body also. And with your body everything you do in the body, which connects you to the whole material world and everyone in it. Even the sewer-mouthed pervs and the nasty gropers. God put you with them for a purpose. Just by being a man of prayer in that restaurant. Just by your refusal to participate in the stuff they do, every day during your shift, makes a huge statement. And your being a normal guy, hard working, honest, and whatever else you bring — people will totally notice. Yeah, some will find it irritating, some won’t care because they’re too self-absorbed to notice. But somebody’s taking note and you never can know what effects God is using you for. You have the best pulpit you could ever get. The only one most of these folks will ever see. A quiet homily.
And remember, the world is only always conquered by Christ one field at a time, one life at a time. But once He gains a field, He’s got a base from which He can launch His revolution. But it takes time. Like a long, gentle and soaking rain.
He reiterated his enthusiasm over being able to assume a greater leadership role at the restaurant, and said that he had gained the respect of many of the employees just because he’s consistent. I continued:
Commitment to this mission from Jesus demands a rugged vision of the lay vocation to be salt, light and leaven in the world. To make the Kingdom of God present and effective. To detonate the J-bomb right where you’re at in the field of battle. Not in the sanctuary but in the field. We need to have a church sanctuary that calls us back in from the battle, to re-arm us, feed us, tend our wounds, help us re-strategize, energize us with pep talks. And where we offer all of the spoils of victory to God. But the laity are commanded at the end of Mass — remember I said that the “Go!” at the end of Mass is an imperative, command verb? — to leave the protected sanctuary and exit into the exposed front lines.
Your restaurant is the perfect arena where your own secular genius can bring about, in ways great and small, a new culture. The same way the Master did, by courageously facing the world with love that’s sometimes stripped naked, beaten, bloodied, spat on, laughed at, rejected, crucified between criminals. And remember Jesus’ initial success stats: only two among all those who surrounded Him on the day of His Passion were converted — the Good Thief and the Centurion. And both were bad dudes before they met Jesus.
Christ-culture, which flows from a splintered Cross and an empty tomb, is not simply about being religious. It includes commitment to hard labor, being a man of your word, being just, fair, chaste, courageous, service-minded, sober, dedicated to excellence in your profession. It includes peace, joy, self-control, generosity. It means being a Christian gentleman. A lost art. All that eloquently proclaims the Gospel of Work and creates a culture that gives Jesus breathing room.
In the early years of Christianity, apologists, who are theologians who defended the faith, would write their defense of Christians to the pagan rulers and would say things like: “Look, Christianity brings all kinds of perks to the Empire. In Christians you have exemplary citizens who live lives of quiet and heroic virtue, who pray for the emperor, who don’t lie or steal or cheat or have sex outside of marriage, who don’t abort their babies, who care for the poor and sick and elderly, who cultivate peace. And all of this is a testimony to the truth of their religion.” Just think if your restaurant was staffed entirely by employees like that — it would make for a more successful business!
That’s the new Kulturkampf the church needs to unleash in society at the end of every Mass: “Go! Be sent! Be cultural revolutionaries, all of you!” The church calls this mission “consecrating the world to God.” To consecrate means to re-claim something for God’s purposes, to make the world the way God wants it to be. Consecrating finds its most perfect expression in the Holy Eucharist. You know, when the bread and wine are consecrated they belong to Jesus entirely, absolutely. But even more specific, in the Eucharistic consecration the Son of God makes Himself claims the bread and wine for His own in a very specific mode: they are His at the moment He hands over His Body to be broken by us and as He sheds His Blood for us. In other words, consecration is joining Jesus as He labors to love and redeem a corrupt, depraved, vicious, ungrateful and perverse rabble, making of that rabble a holy communion.
So let me just say that before you settle on leaving, be sure you first embrace this truth of your faith. Make sense? Look, God has entrusted you with the work of tending a small plot of His Vineyard on 2254 State Street, for 40 hours each week. He’s hoping you can make it bear some good fruit for Him. It’s a vineyard, which means tilling hard soil, clearing stones, digging furrows, planting seeds, praying for rain, hedging, training, pruning, fertilizing. So it’s brutally hard work in the blistering sun. But this is your glory as a layman, the moment of your greatness, the Colosseum of your martyrdom, the way in which Christ continues His conquest of the world from the Cross. Man, you get to bring into that godless space God. Is that amazing? And if we take the Bible seriously, right, it seems God seriously enjoys getting invitations to dine in a den of sin and raise holy hell. [laughs]
All that said, you will absolutely need to find a community of faith for support and encouragement in your parish, or wherever, as a base for your mission. You said have a passion to move up to management, right? And, although it will never be easy or perfect, just think of the influence you could have there. I suspect there’s a calling in that desire. As they say, “If not now, when? If not you, who? If not there, where?” The church needs passionately faith-filled people like you to stay in the world and not just drain out into ministry. I love ministry, but it’s not for everyone. In fact, not for most. The world doesn’t need a brain drain of Christ’s mind. First bloom where you’re planted, and then you can discern God’s will.
My advice in sum? Pray in place and stay put. Just see what happens, what fruits come.
He seemed very enthusiastic and encouraged as we finished our conversation and he gave me his email address and said he wanted to meet again. We did. I gave him the name of a priest I knew would support him and asked him, as is my custom, if he minded my sharing the outlines of his story to benefit others. He said that was fine as long as I kept it anonymous. I wrote him an email the next day and ended with a quote from St. John Paul II:
In particular, two temptations can be cited which [the laity] have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world.
I also included the Twenty One Pilots song, Not Today, which colorfully captures the struggle we have with God (“You”) when we sense He is calling us out of our comfort zone and asking us to stop hiding from our mission to transform the world. I’m glad TØP said yes to that mission!
Every Catholic family, and every Catholic institution responsible for forming young men and women should have this burning at the core of its mission: to cultivate faithful and engaged citizens capable of becoming passionate Christophers in the world, carrying Christ into culture, politics, business, economics, science, sales, you name it. Once planted there in the public square, Christ, like King Midas, can refine the world’s alloy into the purest of gold by His incarnate touch. And we are His incarnate touch.
That is where change will come from.