Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Waiting for Justice

I've just started reading Behind the Kitchen Door by Saru Jayaraman and she's talking about me.  On average Americans eat out at restaurants once a week. I eat out about once a week. In fact, I look forward to that regular break from shopping and cooking.

Even though I've barely finished the first chapter of the book, I can see its relevance to eating out in Tallahassee. One of the many issues Jayaraman raises is that restaurant staffing follows a fairly predictable pattern. Lighter skinned people work as waitstaff and darker skinned people are employed behind the kitchen door or as bussers.  Of course, kitchen staff and bussers make less than their waitstaff co-workers, and that problem is compounded by the fact that many restaurants never promote kitchen workers or bussers to better paying jobs. 

My personal sampling of restaurants in Tallahassee leads me to conclude that I can recall seeing diverse waitstaff at Red Lobster and Cracker Barrel.  Many of the other restaurants I've supported with my patronage have all white waitstaff. It's a symptom of my white privilege that I have to bring to consciousness the question of whether I've seen black and white waitstaff working together.  It's a symptom of endemic racism that, in a city where 34% of the population identifies as black, many of the restaurants I've dined in don't have diverse waitstaff.

I am called to embark on a local, personal research project.  One that should find expression in a Sunday service.  I envision interviewing owners, managers and waitstaff at the restaurants I frequent.  I want to ask the owner/manager describe the waitstaff and kitchen staff, and to talk about their relative wages, and also how they advertise for applicants when seeking new employees. Finally, I want to ask them for permission to speak to some of the staff.  When I talk to staff I'd like to ask how long they've worked at the restaurant, why did they apply to the restaurant where they are employed, did they apply to other restaurants at the same time. at which restaurants were they granted interviews; and if they are making a living wage in their current position.

All of this data will inform an early to mid-May sermon and service focusing on what happens behind the kitchen door and on the dining floor. In the meantime, I can recommend Behind the Kitchen Door to anyone who ever eats in restaurants. It will lead you to consider new definitions for sustainable food and just desserts.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Of Sermons and Puzzles

Writing a sermon is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle when pieces of several puzzles have been dumped into one box.  Only some of the oddly shaped bits will fit together to create a whole picture.  It often happens that I have information gathered in the process of researching a sermon that just doesn't make it into the final oration. 

While researching Abraham Lincoln I listened to lectures and read a number of articles.  After each bit of research I thought about how it might fit into a sermon.  For instance, I heard a scholar muse on Lincoln's Kentucky origins and if he was perceived as a Southerner. I made note to mention Lincoln’s Southern origins. Another lecture left me with the new understanding of how emancipated blacks influenced a culture of appreciation for Lincoln as the premier hero in the drama of freedom.  I wanted to point out in the sermon that black Americans fashioned an understanding of Lincoln's accomplishments that persists today.

I also listened to a lecture that reflected on the one time Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln met. The night before they were briefly introduced to one another, Emerson delivered his American Civilization speech in Washington.  Emerson's point was that civilization rests on morality, and that the end of slavery was an essential condition for building a truly civilized America.  Despite the fact that Emerson was the pre-eminent lecturer of his day, Lincoln wasn't present for the speech. He could likely have read it entirely or excerpts from it in the morning newspaper. It would be very unlikely that the topic of Emerson’s lecture would have escaped the President. Yet, Emerson recalled in his journal that when he was introduced to the President, Lincoln spoke of another speech altogether.  Lincoln quoted to Emerson his words that described Kentuckians as people who present themselves to be accepted just as they are.  Given the context, and the pressure radical Republicans were placing on Lincoln to emancipate all people held in slavery immediately, Lincoln's words carried an ambiguous message.  One could conclude that he meant to say "I'm a Kentuckian, and the President, and I haven't put emancipation ahead of saving the union. Deal with it."  

None of that fit into the sermon when it finally came to be written.  Neither did a critique of the screenplay for Spielberg's film, Lincoln; or quotes from Emerson's American Civilization, or a half-dozen other pieces that didn't have the right shape to fit into picture emerging as I wrote. Now, they are just a few pieces laid to the side of the puzzle, the ones that didn't fit the whole picture of one twenty-minute sermon, too important to be lost.  

(Note: I am today resolving to post to this blog once a week until my sabbatical begins in August. Wish me luck...and sign up for the RSS feed to receive each post as it happens.)