April 26, 2010: Working the Room

The last time I was in a hotel banquet room was precisely one year ago— at a writer’s conference in Boston; best-selling novelist Ann Patchett delivered the keynote address. Lunch had already been served so the wait staff stood at the edges of the huge ballroom while Patchett expounded to  300 or so rapt writers, editors, et al.

Although I’d really appreciated her message (Hey, writers: None of this waiting on the Muse stuff, please. Just plant your butt on a chair and WORK!), there was one very uncomfortable moment in that ballroom. When she’d heard that her first book was going to be published, she was truly excited, she told us, because now she could actually live! Because, you see, she’d been in a nowhere job, wasting her life, going nowhere waitressing. As I remember it, she’d denigrated waitressing at some length.

My friend Lynne nudged me, pointing to the (black and white) wait staff in their black and white uniforms standing nearby: “Wonder how they’re feeling about what she’s saying?” she’d asked rhetorically.

This past Saturday night, in a banquet room in the Richmond (VA) Marriot Hotel, I joined 80 or so wellwishers to celebrate Owen Cardwell’s 40th pastoral anniversary. When, during one of the songs performed by the talented LeRoix and Chantel Hampton and their band, I noticed one of the (all black) wait staff singing along, I remembered Ann Patchett’s insensitivity.

“So,” I thought. “When those serving and those being served are black [mostly], something different can happen, huh?”

But then it really got interesting: Soon after person after person had stood up to tell what “Pastor” had meant in their lives, Elder Jason Boswell, co-mc for the evening, was suddenly moved to directly address one of the waiters (Quakers and Baptists: we’re both sometimes just moved to do something!)

“You from New York?” he asked the burly waiter standing by the banquet room’s main door.

Nonplussed when the whole room went quiet, the guy said he was, then stated how moved he’d been to hear all the nice things people had to say about Dr. Cardwell.


Before you knew it, that waiter’s [I don’t know his name] standing in the front of the room being prayed over, the room’s cheering and clapping, and he’s publicly declaring that he’s accepting Christ into his life.

I’ll never know what accepting Christ means to that waiter (or myself, for that matter.) Or, over the long haul, what that moment will mean in his life.

But I sure know how moved I was when Jason broke through that them-us divide.


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  1. Wow. Special meaning for me on so many levels. Do you know Sam Lowe of Framingham Meeting? He has done some work on the connections between Quakers and Baptists in colonial Virginia. Maybe you need to talk to him.

  2. on the one hand i can understand the excitement of someone finally getting paid to do something they love (write) – the first published book implies more paid books may be on the way.

    on the other hand, Lynn’s observation that waittresses are not unimportant, is revealing.

    apart from the (unintentional?) slap against waitstaff – I’m thinking of a be-here-now attitude.

    waiting tables, or cleaning toilets – one of my current gigs – is not meaningless, but I often think it’s a waste of time. I look at it as something I must do On My Way To something else…

    forgetting that the Joy is IN the journey.
    (who was that spiritual dish-washing monk?)

    shortly after finishing step 5 (in a 12 step program) late one night before falling asleep I was busy denegrating my current job (lab technician). the usual committee voices in my head were interrupted by that still small voice:

    “who am I to say that what I do is not important?”

    did the waittress wash her hands and not sneeze on your food? congrats, she saved you from salmonella or whatever.

    did I clean the sink where you wash your hands from the germs from the last people who used that sink?

    proper and simple hygeine can prevent more diseases than one doctor can treat…

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