Lifting those whom society has kept near the bottom

Published 10:57 am Friday, August 11, 2023

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If you’ve never worked in a restaurant, you can’t know the level of anguish that comes with the service industry. In college, I managed a Japanese restaurant in Greenville. Being only the third person hired, we thought we were on the ground floor of something amazing. A chef from Kanki, a fancy Japanese restaurant in Raleigh, trained us in precise kitchen prep and hibachi-style cooking. As the grand opening was closing in, we were all so excited to share our skills at speed slicing and rapid-fire cooking.

There was very little to be excited about when the grand opening finally came to a close. For three hours, the kitchen staff cooked non-stop for the friends and family of the owners. I’m not sure I have ever experienced that kind of disrespect and dehumanization in any other working capacity. When cooking over the massive open-top grills, the temperature could easily be 120 degrees. For those three hours, we were all battling sweat in our eyes, burns on our hands, and angry voices in our ears as we couldn’t keep up with the onslaught of orders.

But we couldn’t just cook. We had to clean. We had to make sure that tables were turned over to keep pace with the line winding out the door that never seemed to end. If you were foolish enough to look out the front windows, you were met with the ravenous eyes of people staring at you through only the thinnest glass barrier, like they were willing you to work faster and harder so that they could get their free fried rice. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that everything was free. So, not only were we dealing with hungry and angry people, but we were also dealing with entitled people. It was, in a word, terrible.

Did you know that tipped employees, like the servers in the restaurants you enjoy on Sundays after church, only make $2.13 per hour? The hope is that they make enough in tips to have a living wage. Yet, we really should admit that we aren’t always faithful in tipping 20%. Even worse, the federal minimum wage of $2.13 has been the same since 1991. You read that right. There hasn’t been an adjustment to the wages of tipped employees in over 30 years! In 1991, $2.13 had the same purchasing power as $4.58 today. So, this means two things: firstly, that tipped employees have seen their minimum wages lose value year after year; and secondly, that a restaurant server can work for 8 hours and only bring in $17.04 if they receive no tips, which, since we are being honest about our own tipping practices, isn’t a guarantee.

When you sit down to eat, the one who takes your order, brings your food, and ensures your comfort is a living, breathing human being worthy of respect. They come to your table with their own life story and serve you while dealing with their internal struggles. While I’m not advocating that you suddenly become BFFs with your next server, I am challenging you to stretch your hospitality muscles and do something, anything, to affirm their dignity and beauty.

What is something you can do that would completely surprise them, that would take their breath away? What’s a word you could say, or an encouragement you could offer, that might remind your server that there are people in the world who see them for who they are, a beloved child of God, beautiful to behold?

How we treat those over whom we have power is one of the best ways to see what lurks in our hearts. How are you going to use your power, your position? Will you lift those whom society has kept near the bottom? Better yet, will you use your power to make a change that, while having no immediate benefit to you, might better the lives of so many around you? The choice, as always, is yours. I hope you choose wisely. I’ll do the same, too.

Chris Adams is the Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Washington.