The diner: ‘This is my church’
By Kirk Noonan and Scott Bruegman
A thick, red hamburger patty sizzles on the grill. The cook presses the meat down with a spatula then — in what appears to be one swift motion — she takes a mini-sidestep, grabs a handful of sliced potatoes and throws them into a bubbling vat of dark brown oil a second before she attacks a mound of onions with a long knife.
Most patrons at this Colorado Springs diner don’t notice the cook’s efficiency. But she doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, she seems to relish the obscurity her position provides. Yet in many ways she is an anomaly in this cramped diner. By design, this is a place where rubbing elbows and conversing with your neighbor are the order of the day. Besides being a place to eat, this diner (like many others across the nation) is a place to belong — if even for just one meal.
“The diner is a tradition,” says Rick, an electrician on break from his job at a power plant. “The care going into the food makes it almost like home cooking.”
“You also get to meet a bunch of different people,” chimes in Rick’s co-worker and lunch mate, Jimmy, just before he wolfs down a handful of fries.
Scott Bruegman and I have also come to this diner to meet people. But we’re not looking for a trip down memory lane or a blue-plate special; we’ve come in search of answers regarding people’s views on Christians, church, heaven and Jesus Christ.
“Jesus Christ?” asks Charles, a 60-something truck driver who has stopped at the diner for a quick bite. “Most people I know are more comfortable using His name as an expletive rather than in reference to the real God.”
Talking faith with two strangers is not exactly in Charles’ comfort zone. He’d rather talk of skyrocketing real estate prices or the hallmarks of a good diner. He knows diners well after having spent the past 37 years of his life on the road relying on diners for meals.
“In my hometown if you wanted to know any of the local news the diner was the place to be in the mornings,” he says. “You could also get a good slice of pie too … but the mom-and-pop diners are now almost nonexistent.”
He flips through a car magazine without really looking at it. Though faith is a subject he’s not all that comfortable discussing, it is easy to tell that he enjoys a good conversation. “The old diners were a family-run deal,” he continues. “The food was good, homemade and never out of a can or box.”
The waitress places a giant plate teeming with fries and a large cheeseburger before Charles. He hardly notices the plate as he latches on to our little conversation.
“Do you have children?” we question Charles.
“I have four of ’em,” he replies. “I’m a family man.”
Charles claims Jesus as his Lord and Savior. He doesn’t go to church, he says, but he’s interested in attending again someday. He goes on to tell us that, while politics are of little interest to him, he is extremely patriotic. When asked how he would describe the spiritual climate in the United States he doesn’t hesitate:
“They want to take under God out of the Pledge of Allegiance,” he says. “But I grew up with it. Like they say, ‘God, guns and guts made the U.S.A.,’ and it needs to stay that way.”
Like many diners, this one has neon lights, stainless steel fixtures, a black-and-white checkered floor, the first dollar earned taped to the wall and a jukebox.
Rick and Jimmy are becoming regulars. Besides the good food, they like how close it is to their work and the reasonable prices. Such attributes, they say, are important. Both men work hard for their money, as evidenced by the soot on their faces and the grime on their overalls.
“The meat on the burger was a little rough,” Rick says to the waitress as she clears his plate. “But it was good.”
Rick moved his family to Colorado Springs in search of a better life a few years ago. His weeks are busy and his job is sometimes dangerous. On the weekends he is tired and ready to have fun. He admits his family’s hectic schedule leaves little time for attending church, but morals and ethics, and faith in Jesus, are cornerstones in his family’s life.
“On the weekends I like to cool down and kick back,” he says. “We go to church when we can, but we try to keep the weekends more of a family thing.”
Jimmy nods his head in agreement as Rick talks.
“I haven’t been to church in I don’t know how long,” he admits. “I can sit here and come up with excuses why I don’t go, but I am just too lazy to go.”
Last Easter, Jimmy visited a large evangelical church in the city of 360,000 that featured a passion play. Jimmy says attending the play was a life-changing experience and it made him look at life from a totally different angle than he had before.
“I believe God listens to me — sometimes,” he says.
“Sometimes?” Rick interrupts. “God is here and He listens … we have good and bad times, but He is always here.”
A few stools down from Rick and Jimmy sits Chad, a large Hispanic man with an easy smile and a kind demeanor. Chad is a nonpracticing Catholic, and his wife and children are Jehovah’s Witnesses. He says there are no difficulties having a religiously blended family as long as everyone respects one another’s beliefs.
“There is no conflict,” he says, almost offended that we might be inferring there would be. “I have no grudges against anybody’s religion. Whatever people choose to do, I have no problem. I grew up Catholic. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll convert to a Jehovah’s Witness. But my wife and kids don’t knock me for my beliefs and I don’t knock them for theirs.”
Many customers we meet share Chad’s stance. Church is fine, whatever the brand, whether you attend or not. But patrons at the next diner we visit will shed light on negative perceptions many people have about church.
The smell of bacon, eggs and other breakfast fare surround the diner like an enticing halo. The eatery’s booths are filled and there are few seats available at the counter. Bikers, young families, senior citizens and trendy couples have gathered at this Denver eatery for a late Saturday morning breakfast.
Steak and eggs are the specialty of the house, as advertised on the window and seen on several plates throughout the room. We sit down at the counter and a waitress named Mildred quickly slaps down a couple of menus.
“No thanks,” I say.
Mildred turns quickly and grabs toast from a toaster and throws it on a plate that already has several thick strips of bacon. She slides the plate in front of a 13-year-old boy. “Toast and bacon,” she announces before rushing to the end of the counter to take an order.
After Mildred takes our orders we ask her if we can interview her. She smiles, flattered by the question. “Sure,” she says, “but let me give my lungs a hit and I’ll be back.”
Mildred looks to weigh little more than 100 pounds. Wrinkles have etched their way across her face. Her soft, brown eyes make you wonder if she is pitying you or begging you to save her from her place in life.
After a cigarette break she returns and we quickly learn that she is a resident historian and graceful host. She knows all the regulars by name, has a quick, dry wit and truly loves her job.
“What’ll it be, Ted?” she asks a customer as he settles onto a stool at the counter.
“Steak and eggs and a coffee coming right up,” says Mildred with a generous smile.
“Thanks, Mildred,” the man mumbles behind his newspaper.
After Mildred places the man’s order she returns to our conversation.
“Do you like when the customers say your first name?”
Mildred smiles and looks down sheepishly. “Yes,” she replies softly, “I do.”
In between taking orders, topping off coffees and delivering meals, Mildred answers our questions. She says very few customers talk of their faith. We ask if she sees anyone pray over their meals before they eat. “No,” she says quickly. Then she pauses as if trying to recall a specific example. “Well, it has been a long time.”
We slide over to Ken. He looks gruff and appears to stay at least at arm’s length from anyone who might try to broach a conversation with him. Though reluctant to talk, Ken tells us he’s 59 and has been coming to the diner for the past 40 years on a regular basis. Steak and eggs have been and are his favorite dish. “And for $3.75 you can’t beat that,” he says.
Ken says typical talk at the counter has to do with news, people’s families and jokes from the Internet. Talk of faith and politics is rare, he says, and not generally welcome.
“Do you ever go to church, Ken?”
“This is my church!” he snaps.
It’s easy to see why Ken feels that way. In many ways the staff and regulars are like a well-meaning, but maladjusted family. Like at a bar, they all know one another’s first names, they try not to say anything that would offend anyone, they leave all their problems at the door and they work hard to keep everyone comfortable.
We speculate that the diner might be reflective of some churches in the United States. The only difference being that at least here people feel a certain degree of comfort.
A few minutes later a waitress named Debbie confirms our thoughts.
“I never fit in at a church before,” she says. She’s in her early 40s and recently committed her life to Christ at a biker church in downtown Denver. “I didn’t have dressy clothes and I didn’t know what to do. But when I found this biker church I felt so comfortable that I accepted Jesus.”
She says most of the people who are regulars at the diner are looking for friendship and a place to fit in, much the way she was before she began going to the biker church. “A lot of seniors and handicapped customers will stay for hours at a time because they are comfortable here,” she says. “A new customer is only an outsider for about 15 minutes.”
Laura agrees to talk to us after hearing about this story. From the get-go it is evident that she has not had a good experience with Christians.
“They tried to put the fear in me,” she says of teachers at the parochial school she attended as a child and teen. “No drinking, dancing or fun. Nothing!”
Teachings about the Old Testament were drilled into her, she says. She studied Scripture enough to recite it, but not enough to know what it meant. Faith, she says, was all about living up to a certain standard that seemed unreachable and was more burdensome than freeing.
“When I got to college I realized there was more to the world than just the Old Testament,” she says. “I also found out that there were other religions out there.”
Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have approached her, she says, but no one from a mainstream Christian faith has ever shared the gospel with her. And that is fine with her.
“Not one and I would probably shut them down anyway,” she says. “I don’t want to hear it. It was forced on me for so many years. If I want to read the Bible, go to church or discuss it, I will.”
Laura, 40, believes there is a superior being somewhere “out there” with a master plan, but she is not sure who or what that being is. She believes that when a person dies he or she will go to a state of nirvana where there will be no crime or violence and everyone and every animal will get along.
“Do you think everyone will go to heaven?”
“Some people are inherently evil and they might go who knows where,” she says picking her words carefully. “Maybe they’ll go to a lower level of heaven or a limbo area.”
The busboys and waitresses begin mopping the floors, wiping down the tables and wishing their customers a good day. Tomorrow the regulars and the outsiders will gather once again around the counter to eat and talk — and maybe someone will pray over their meal or read their Bible or even share their faith with a stranger. After all, this diner is their church.
All names have been changed.
Kirk Noonan is associate editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel. Scott Bruegman is an Assemblies of God U.S. missionary in Denver, Colo.
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