By Cole Hartin
I’ve always said I would be happy pouring lattes for the rest of my life if I could make a living that way. I love coffee (Who in their right mind doesn’t?), and I found working as a barista was perfectly suited to my vocation as a Christian.
Over the years I’ve worked in all kinds of jobs, from landscaping to editing software manuals to washing dishes. I am a pastor now, and I believe this is what God has called me to do for the rest of my life. But I find one thing especially challenging to my ministry: limited meaningful contact with people who are not Christians.
I’m not the first one to realize this. I heard it growing up from the man behind the pulpit on the stage: “My job is to equip you all, but God is sending you out to preach the gospel; I’m a pastor to prepare you for the real work of the ministry,” he explained with gusto.
At the time, I’ll admit, I thought this was his way of shirking responsibility, but now I see that it’s not far from the truth.
When you are in church ministry, you are working with people who are Christians, or at least people who want to go to church. Add to that some time away during seminary training, or the constraints of a growing family, sustaining friendships, and day-to-day responsibility, and you see that, other than chatting about the weather with your neighbors from time to time, you don’t have much meaningful contact with people who are not already members of the body of Christ.
Working in a café was very different. The hours dripped by smoothly, like espresso oozing from a well-packed portafilter. Conversation flowed freely with my coworkers (after our first cup of the morning), and nothing was off-limits. When you wake before dawn and spend eight hours with a small team of people, you open up. And this is to say nothing of the banter with customers.
True, there were busy hours, as people rushed in for their morning cappuccino (bone dry, nothing but foam) before hopping on the subway. We had to be robots then, automatons, steaming, pouring, smiling, holding back our morning breath. But the rest of the morning had a saner pace.
I know too that it’s not just any job that allows the luxury of deep conversation. I worked in a factory once, mostly alone, until I walked briskly into the fluorescent-lit lunchroom to sit at one of the long rows. The conversation there was stilted, save for a garrulous group of older men: potbellied, with stained shirts, five o’clock shadow, and endless talk of their drunken escapades (mostly imagined) or filth about women they ought to respect. I stayed away from them, and even then felt like my mind needed a bath after every shift.
Baristas are mostly pleasant people, and usually keep to swearing under their breath, you know, for the sake of the customers. And very few baristas look at their work as a career. They are artists, usually: playwrights, musicians, authors, students, all working the espresso bar for cash while they pursue their real passions.
Most conversations started about our dreams. I’d often asked my partner behind the bar, “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?” They would tell me their plan to write a novel, or to finish their degree so they can get a real job. I’d share about my aspirations to be a priest. That was usually enough, and then we would talk about church, mostly about why they didn’t attend, but also about God, life, etc. Deep things. Good things.
Of course, these conversations were punctuated by glances over the counter. “Oh, hi there. How are you? What can I get started for you today?” But it didn’t take long to dive back into the problem of evil, or why I believe Jesus really did rise from the dead.
I sometimes shudder at the word evangelism because of the programmatic, sales-pitch conversations that come to mind. Now it seems in vogue to reject talking about faith altogether, while pretending we care about St. Francis, and hoping people ask us why we’re Christians because they see us gently patting stray cats, or picking up a piece of trash here and there.
When I was talking to my coworkers (my friends, really), I wasn’t trying to press them into some evangelical corner. I really cared for them, and I really believed in the power of the gospel, and I wanted (and want) to share its goodness with them.
Relationships in which these things can happen take time to build, lots of time. That’s time I haven’t had since I was a single college student, laying around, strumming my ukulele, shooting the breeze. I think most adults, especially most parents, face the same predicament. Unless they are fortunate, it is hard to find in a café or any other job in which they can speak freely and still make a decent living. One can still cultivate deep relationships on evenings and weekends, but this is particularly hard with the pastor’s work week, or for anyone with small children (at least if they enjoy spending time with them).
I know one solution to all of this is build some kind of intentional community, to be present in one’s neighborhood, to make space for conversations. There’s something to that. On the other hand, I’ve come to recognize the true diversity of the body of Christ: I think a lot of the weight of evangelism lies on the shoulders of young people, those called to a life of singleness, and retired folk. For the rest of us, those who have families, it can be harder to find these opportunities. Perhaps it’s an important reminder for us to make the most of our old age in these evil days.
And it’s important for us to realize that God has given us screaming toddlers or slothful 14-year-olds because he wants us to help them learn to be disciples of Jesus, to prepare them for the role they have to play in spreading the gospel. This is especially true for pastors: we cannot treat preparing our children as some kind of afterthought.
Life has changed, and I’ll admit to feeling somewhat nostalgic for the life of barista. At least I can still kill an hour with a good latte at my local spot from time to time.