Waitressing in the Sacred Kitchens

Rev. Meg Barnhouse [a UU minister in Austin, TX)

I love for a waitress to call me “Hon.” It is comforting. She doesn’t know me, and I don’t know her, but we fit into well-worn, ancient categories: I am the Hungry One, and she is the One Who Brings Nourishment from the Unseen Source.

When I was younger, I worked as a waitress in Philadelphia and New Jersey. I learned things that have come in handy many times since then. I know how to rush around with my hands full, thinking about six things at once. That has stood me in good stead as the working mother of two small sons. I also realized that people are not at their best when they’re hungry. That helps me understand world events; I know that if the citizens of the world were well fed, we’d have fewer wars and less mayhem.

The most useful thing I grasped while waitressing was that some tables are my responsibility, and some are not. A waitress gets overwhelmed if she has too many tables, and no one gets good service. In my life there are a certain number of things I have to take care of: I have my children, my relationships, my work, myself, and that’s about it. Other things are not my table. I would go nuts if I tried to take care of everyone, if I tried to make everybody do right. If I went through life without ever learning to say “Sorry, that’s not my table, Hon,” I would burn out and be no good to anybody. It is necessary to my well-being to have a surly New Jersey waitress inside that I can call on when it seems everyone in the world is waving an empty coffee cup in my direction. My Inner Waitress looks over at them, keeping her six plates balanced and her feet moving, and says, “Sorry, Hon, not my table.”

One of the hardest things for me to learn at the restaurant was how to blend into the woodwork. A man asked me once, “How long have you been here?” I smiled and said, “About five weeks, since the beginning of the semester….”

“I meant the restaurant,” he interrupted. How humiliating. I grew up with parents who thought I was fascinating and smart, and they paid a lot of attention to me. I naturally assumed that someone could look at me and want to know things about me. What they needed was for me to fill a role, to be a function rather than an individual. I’m still learning this as a minister and as a therapist. It takes a certain spiritual strength for me to take on a role peacefully and let people relate to me in my function as a therapist or a minister, rather than as a fascinating woman with a birthday, a favorite color, a song I can sing better than it is performed on the album, and cool stories of travel to foreign lands. There is a loss of ego that’s necessary before I can become willing to lose myself that way. I’m still not too good at it.

When I was in seminary learning to be a minister, all of us were struggling with how to blend and balance our individuality within the role of minister. We all found that most people have a strong idea of how a minister should look and talk and behave. I can be with a group of new people, talking and laughing, being normal, and the moment they find out I’m a minister, the laughter dies as they check back over the things they said in front of me, trying to remember if they’ve sworn or sinned. It’s hard. It makes some of us want to lie about what we do. It makes some ministers want to say the F-word just to eliminate those burdensome expectations.

There are times, though, when people need to draw strength and comfort from the Spirit, and I’m the one who is there at the hospital or at the funeral home in the role of minister. It is my job to bring nourishment to their hungry souls from the sacred kitchens where Spirit cooks up healing and comfort. It doesn’t matter at that moment when my birthday is, or that purple is my favorite color. What matters is the function I perform when I stand in the broad stream of history and symbol, faith and mythology, and let something larger than myself work its way through me. What matters is that I’m smelling the rich aromas of hope and joy rising from the dishes I hold in my arms, and that I know what it means to the people who are in need of that food I’m bringing to their souls. I like to remember where I began learning how to bring it to the table from the kitchen. Come sit down, Hon. Are you hungry?