It’s the very end of the night, and me and three regulars are closing down the tavern. The stools are up, the dining room lights are down, and the bar smells like cleaning solution and stale beer. My manager, the bartender who has been working behind this same bar for forty plus years, has slammed the office door to “do the numbers” in peace, because we were being noisy and jesus christ truman keep it the hell down.
The three remaining regulars have paid, and we’re hanging on to our small, odd family unit until the last possible minute when the manager comes out of the office and makes us all go home. One last hand rolled cigarette, a Johnny Walker Black (“one rock, please”), a Miller Light. I’m about to join them, because my watch is over and after a fourteen hour long double shift, my feet are swollen and sore and I’m ready for tequila. I rub kosher salt on the rim and shoot a double of Cuervo, tapping my glass on the thick oak bar like liturgy.
As I put the empty glass back on the bar, one of my regulars asks “so, are you still doing ministry?”
I’m still sucking the last bit of juice out of the lime rind. I feel like a naughty kid caught red-handed.
The elegant silver-haired gentleman in the well-fitting suit jumps to my defense. “Of course! Right now! Always!” He is always drilling me on Biblical interpretation and shaking his head morosely at my naive progressive politics (he’s a liberal, but very pragmatic, and I’m bad at being pragmatic). He has a generous view of ministry, an all-encompassing one.
I have a generous view of ministry, too, but I still don’t think I’m doing it at this bar.
There are some romantic ideas about “bartenders as therapists” that Hollywood perpetuates. They are not as true as one would hope – or, like, specifically as I would hope. Being a chaplain was one of the most difficult and wonderful jobs I’ve ever had, and the gifts of undivided attention, careful questions, and sacred space are some of the holiest gifts you can give to another human. And damnit, it is so rare to have a chance to offer those gifts of ministry to someone at the bar in between running checks, cleaning up broken glass, and navigating work conflict (real or imagined) with co-workers.
I’m not doing ministry here. I’m human working in a bar, trying to be kind, but mostly just getting by. Not only am I not “doing ministry,” I’m pretty rarely my best self, either. It’s hard to be your best self in a bar! I’m cranky or energetic or bubbly or resentful or petty. I’m my average self, or sometimes my worst self, but you can’t be precious about your best self when you’re just trying to make rent and not be a complete asshole in the process.
Not that anyone brings their idealized, “best self” to a bar. Everyone shows up tired after work, trying to unwind, trying to find community, and trying (some of us trying harder than others, admittedly) not to be complete assholes on the way. This Democratic tavern has been in the heart of Atlanta for sixty-three years. That is a lot of years to hold a lot of people who are doing our very best to make rent and not be assholes. The tavern has made space for politicians and gamers and coders and suburban ladies and activists and even the spare Trump supporter. Working in the restaurant industry isn’t easy. This industry is fast paced, unstable work for fast paced, unstable people. Sometimes I pick fights and sometimes I let it slide. Sometimes I serve drinks at a memorial service, a stranger bringing martinis in the middle of overwhelming grief. Sometimes I get cornered against the wall and screamed at for accidentally throwing away someone’s cheesecake that THEY WERE NOT DONE WITH. Sometimes I get hugged by little old ladies who follow me on Instagram. Sometimes I’m so irritated at tables full of teenagers that I want to smash glasses. Sometimes I cry in the bathroom.
When I put my hands on these wooden booths, though, I think about how many people in sixty-three years have sat here, smoked here, met their spouses and ran for office and been kissed and been rejected and made plans and written plays and sent out book proposals and fallen in love in between these old wooden walls.
I have done most of those things here, too, in the last three years.
This tavern is home.
I always joke that the two loves of my life are Jesus and the city of Atlanta, but I think there are three – Jesus, Atlanta, and the tavern.
The tavern is a more complicated love, because everything real is more complicated. “Jesus” and “Atlanta” are real, but in some ways they are both ideals, too, and it’s easy to love an ideal. “Active love,” Dostoevsky says, “is a harsh and fearful thing compared to love in dreams.” Active love – loving solid things – means always being vaguely irritated, because they are not perfect, and neither are you, but here we are, showing up. We come imperfectly, flawed, disastrously, but we still come.
Working at this tavern is not the same as doing ministry. The sacred space that pastors and chaplains hold is slow, intentional, and gentle, and restaurants are not slow, or intentional, or gentle. But while ministry is important – God, I’m grateful for the pastors and chaplains and campus ministers and spiritual directors who have loved me back to life – sometimes it’s OK to not be doing ministry.
Sometimes it’s enough to just be human with our neighbors.
The tavern is getting very quiet now. There are only a few minutes left of Thursday night before we roll into Friday morning. My manager is almost done with the numbers, and I’m almost done cleaning the triple sinks under the bar.
One of my regulars holds his High Life very precisely and says, I hope that in heaven, we are our most true selves. In that heaven, I would find words for my poems that fit perfectly. My most true self, I think, is a poet.
Oh, that sounds wonderful, I tell him. There’s a sacred moment here, but there isn’t time or privacy to pursue it. All I can do is say is that it sounds wonderful. I can’t give him a half hour of careful listening, but I can give him seven seconds, before I pour a final beer for his friend. Then, because I’m tired and also full of needs and aches, I tell him that I wish I could find better words, too, and I’d love to be in the Kingdom of God where all my words spilled out without any procrastination or fear or regret. On a Thursday night at 11:45, I’m not a chaplain whose personhood is carefully withheld to make space for the other, but an overtired bartender who also wants to connect, and be heard, and be seen, and be human, and be loved.
When I was a chaplain, I could step and and out of human suffering. I was good at being a chaplain. It wasn’t easy, but there was clarity in my role. It was much easier to be my “best self.” My job was to hold space and create spiritual hospitality, and I could show up in dress slacks and take a deep breath and say a prayer before I walked into a hospital room full of beeping machines and wires and tubes sticking out of human bodies. I’d know that in an hour or two, I would walk out again and go home.
It’s a different thing to be fully joined in the humanness of it all, where I am not a chaplain swooping in to save a damn soul, but just another person caught in the disaster of being human, of finding meaning, of failing, of being a bitch or a drama queen or crying in the booth with the wise old playwright and asking him if he had ever been so lonely it felt like his soul was bleeding out, and him saying, oh yes, my dear, oh yes.
In this tavern, we all have tubes sticking out of us. No one gets out alive.
Working here, we get to touch this city with both hands and both (very swollen) feet, not on the outside looking in, but joining this city in the drama and trauma of being a person – trying to make rent and not be an asshole and find some kind of meaning, all at the same damn time.
Every night I get home from work and write on my balcony. Bourbon, a cigarette, cicadas, muggy Atlanta air, feet up on the railing. Every night, a guy who lives in my building chaotically parks beneath my balcony and hollers up, “hi, neighbor!” I’m writing this up on the balcony now, listening to far away trains and far away thunder, the arguments in the apartments across the street, the man talking to his cat next door. I think there is rain coming in.
Maybe the question should be reversed. Maybe instead of asking folks if they’re doing ministry, we should be asking ministers if they’re being human. If they’re being neighbors. If they know that being a pastor isn’t enough – we have to hold each as other as people, first, foremost, always.
It is quite a miracle that God decided, too, that it was enough to be a Person next to us. That maybe it was enough to be our neighbor, swollen feet and all. That God decided that being Human with us is the Good News that we need so badly.
Maybe this being human with each other is the Gospel.
Maybe being good neighbors is enough.