Ecumenical Arches

by Tom Tredway

There is hardly a McDonald’s in Christendom that lacks a group of elderly sages who gather every morning for senior coffee and a reprise of recent developments. You can try one of the stores just off Schwedenplatz in Vienna or hit the one in Uppsala on Fyrisparkvägen. There’ll be a table of regulars there almost any morning. In parts of New York City they’ll be speaking Spanish, and on Mercer Island, east of Seattle, they’ll nervously be looking at the calories listed beside all the menu items, posted by local ordinance. Whatever the language or the calories, the Golden Arches are world-wide.

“Ecumenical” comes from the Greek word for “world,” so it has the sense of universal. It has also come to signify a certain openness to others and their views. The claim to universality and an inclination to openness have not always co-existed comfortably in Christianity, but if you think of the fast-food chain as “ecumenical,” the two qualities do go together. Their stores are everywhere, and they’re usually open. When I can get to them, I like the Mickey D’s in Europe and on the American coasts fine. But my own visits are mainly in the middle of this country. My wife and I travel frequently between Rock Island, Ill., and Santa Fe, New Mexico, so it’s the Arches of Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and New Mexico that we know best. But Sweden or Salina, Austria or Oskaloosa, there will probably be some old fellows (and maybe ladies) sitting together every morning. Woe to the pilgrim who takes their table or presumes unbidden to join them!

But you can sit nearby, and if you drink your coffee quietly and don’t mind eavesdropping, there is much to be learned. The gathered ones have usually read the newspaper that’s still lying on a table nearby, either provided by the management or bought from the vending machines near the front door, then charitably left by an earlier customer. So if you listen, you can get an interesting review of events, local and cosmic. This is supposed to be a post-Christian age, but often enough the conversation is about religion. I offer a couple of ecumenical examples.

Santa Fe is a Catholic town. From the Cathedral of St. Francis near the Plaza to the neighborhood churches that sit on almost every adobied block, the parishes are packed on Sunday mornings. You can’t park anywhere near them. But if you park at the McDonald’s near the corner of St. Francis and Cerillos Avenues on Monday morning, the amigos will be there at the big table just on the left, and they’ll be reviewing yesterday’s services. You get the idea that some of them must have attended two or three masses, because they are all well informed as to what Father Gonzalez at Our Lady of Guadalupe said about God sending the forest fires or up to date on what Monsignor Martinez at the Cathedral thought about the lack of religion in public elementary education.

And though faithful in church attendance, the folks at the table are not uncritical. The morning paper has filled them in on the fires in the mountains and the trouble in the schools, so they know what the pastors were talking about. They know what they themselves think about these matters as well, and they don’t always agree with the clergy. It reminds me of the ”Preacher Hash” that used to be served in Covenant homes along with Sunday dinner. I have concluded that Roman Catholics are no less thoughtful, reflective, and even critical about what goes on in church than were the Pietists I grew up with in Buffalo. The latter had plenty to say about the morning sermon – as soon as the baked ham and scalloped potatoes were served up.

Or consider the comment I overheard a month or so ago in Bethany, a small town near the Missouri-Iowa state line. According to the headline in the Kansas City Star, a prominent local musician had died, and the breakfast table was reviewing his colorful life, one not unadorned by peccadillos. “That man was either a genius or an idiot,” one grizzled observer drawled, and his mates nodded their agreement. I wanted to ask which it was, but then one of the boys added, ”God knows, he was really both!”

The man who said that didn’t look like Martin Luther, but as we drove off, I wondered if he’d been reading him. Of course the Reformer was not so much concerned about the degrees of genius or idiocy co-existing in a person. He worried more about sinfulness and righteousness. Luther’s understanding of the Christian faith says that we are all simul justus et peccator – at the same time sinners and justified. When it is time to sum up a human life, as I learned in the same Buffalo congregation that nourished itself on preacher hash, we have to leave the final judgment to God. After the obsequies are concluded, most of the mourners leaving a funeral know that each life, including their own, is for God to decide about. Believing the Gospel, we trust in his mercy.

Whether it’s the pastor’s homily or the obituary in a newspaper, the faith I learned in the church where I grew up tells me that it is important to be critical. It is not un-Christian to review and decide for yourself what you think about what you’re being told in nomine dei. It seems that Roman Catholics also do that. The danger comes when you assume that your judgment is God’s. And Catholics have no corner on that.

Most of us are, in one way or another, both geniuses and idiots. We are at the same time justified and sinners. That goes for musicians and for clergy alike. That realization is the basis for thinking critically, but then leaving the final evaluation to God. The qualities of universality and of openness, and of critical, generous thought, need not stand opposed – in restaurants and, more importantly, in churches. The essence of genuine ecumenicity lies in loyalty to a tradition about which one is also willing to be critical, so that one is open to people from other traditions. It lies in the recognition that all people, oneself and others too, stand ultimately under God’s mercy and judgment. That foundational attitude is even more important than the sort of ecumenicity that forms councils of churches or chains of fast food eateries.

Happily, the wisdom I have picked up along with the cheap pancakes and senior coffee while eavesdropping at McDonald’s has reinforced what I first learned from Verne Johnson in Sunday School: be critical and be kind. Well, it turns out that sometime since I left Buffalo for North Park six decades ago, a Golden Arches has been built on Elmwood, just south of Kenmore Avenue, not too far from the Evangelical Covenant Church. I trust the congregation is still ecumenical – like the guys in the fast food place.

Tom Tredway is a teacher of history and president emeritus of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. He is the author of “Conrad Bergendoff’s Faith and Work: A Swedish-American Lutheran, 1895-1997.”

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