Gas Station Coffee & Do-It Yourself Homilies
Written by: Megan Bensley
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Gas station coffee. It is one of my favorite things. 1/3 cappuccino to 2/3 coffee. I have had some of my best conversations with friends on road trips, strangers on Greyhound buses, and family members on the walk back from the gas station over a steaming cup of french vanilla. I’m not sure if it’s the no-frills styrofoam cup or the sinful amount of sugar, but gas station coffee really makes people slow down, open up and be real.
The homily at mass this morning in rural upstate New York begged for some gas station refreshment. Father J openly admitted that he needed a breather from the homily-giving after the wear-and-tear of Advent and turned the floor over to the congregation to reflect on the season and what it has meant to each of us this year. The plea for a participatory homily was met with a full 3 minutes of silence and I couldn’t help but become nostalgic for some gas station coffee. It really gets people talking. Enough awkward silence will also get people talking and soon several women had shared their reflections on Advent 2009. I was surprised, and somewhat proud, of the non-sugary stories that my hometown hamlet produced. One woman confessed that the holidays were enlightening as she came to terms with the fact that she, the eldest of eight, was not going to have children of her own even though she had been changing diapers since she was seven years old. Another woman, a nurse, opened up about the long, heart wrenching shifts she struggled to make sense of throughout the Advent season. She shared that as the days passed by she soaked up more and more sorrow from her patients’ suffering. There were several other Advent anecdotes shared and explained, each one seemingly confirming Fr. J’s decision to “open the floor up.” What’s more, each story ended with the storyteller expressing thanks to the congregation for the opportunity to share their story, and thanks for (perhaps unknowingly) being present every Sunday to love, to support and to reassure over the past four weeks.
At the end of mass, I wanted to caravan down to the Hess on the corner with the twenty families present at mass and buy everyone a cup of gas station coffee. You see, the “open the floor up” homily and gas station coffee have more in common than it might seem at first glance. They are both invitations. Invitations that at first we turn our lips up at: “I’ll stick to my fair trade latte, thank you very much.” Or, “Bring on the traditional talk-at-me homily, Fr. ______ .” I admit that I am often of these attitudes. Yet, there is something refreshingly simple and direct about both gas station coffee and what I’ll coin as “Do-it-yourself” homilies. They both get people talking, get people listening to each other and dare I say, get people more Christ-like. Really now, if Jesus Christ himself were looking for a cup of coffee this day in age, I think he would much rather throw down $1.25 in quarters and be on his way with his unadorned joe than pay three times as much after waiting in an altogether too long of a line at a holier-than-thou establishment. And if he turned the corner, coffee in hand, and entered the parish adjacent to the gas station and walked inside, which would he rather hear: the thoughts of one vowed preacher, or the flawed hems and haws of several “Do-it-yourself” conversations?
To bring the comparison to an end, I have to share how the homily ended. Fr. J asked in an appreciative tone if there were any last stories to tell before continuing on. There was another bout of silence before a bearded man dressed in camouflage hunting pants and a camel colored Carhartt jacket approached the altar with a folded piece of paper. Father J took the note and read it, smiling, as the man turned around to the congregation and announced: “The roads on Route 11 seem a little slippery, so please be careful on your way home.”
We all have our ways of contributing to these “Do-it-yourself” conversations, whether it is words of reflection, storytelling, commentary or advice. In these “post-Advent” days, let’s all embrace the spirit of gas station coffee and homemade homilies— slow down, open up and get real with the people around us.
Photo: “Bad Gas Station Coffee” by “desert-dweller” from Flickr (Used under Creative Commons license)