Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Waiting for a Message from God

I used to wait tables (off and on, for about 5 years). I also used to be a Christian pastor. So you can imagine my excitement when one of the headlines on my Yahoo home page teased something to the effect of “You won’t believe the message that a pastor left for a waiter!” I clicked. I read. I cried on the inside.

Apparently responding to automatically being charged an 18% tip, some pastor wrote on the charge slip, “I give God 10%. Why do you get 18?”

I read the initial report yesterday morning. Several times throughout the day, the story popped into my head. Each time, I shook my head and thought, “Why? What is to be gained, O brother in Christ?”

I got home that afternoon, and the story was still a headline on Yahoo. Only now, the waitress had been fired for posting the picture of the charge slip. Also, the pastor had been identified. My “brother” was actually a “sister,” and Pastor Alois Bell actually resides in my home city of St. Louis, Missouri. And there you thought that only Catholics had a voice in St. Louis! It seems that we Protestants were just waiting for the right situation to let our voice be heard.

A couple of clicks later, I discovered that not only was the pastor a Christian residing in St. Louis, but the Applebee’s where this incident went down is about 20 yards from my home church. (Just in case you think this will end with me discovering that it was my pastor who wrote the note… uh, no. That’s not where this is going.)

It’s a little surreal when an incident that took place at an Applebee’s on the same block as your church is the fourth “most trending search” on Yahoo.com.

In the past, I’ve wanted to write posts on current events, but I always wait too long to write them, and they stop being current. I was worried that had happened again, since I started this post on Friday, and now it is Monday, the day after Beyonce, commercials, Harbough v. Harbough, the blackout, and the retirement of Ray Lewis. Oh, and just for good measure, scientists found the remains of King Richard III under a parking lot in Leicester, England.

Rest assured, this information on the Applebee’s incident is still out there. It’s still the most popular story on stltoday.com, and easy to find on (for example) yahoo, usatoday, cnn, msnbc, foxnews, huffingtonpost, and (soon) willpreachforfood.com.

Having done my research, I can fill in a few more details.
What I believe to be factual details:
-Alois ate at Applebee’s in a party of either 8 (5 adults and 3 kids) or 10 (5 adults and 5 kids)
-Her bill was $34.93, and an 18% gratuity of $6.29 was added to that amount.
-Alois scratched out the $6.29 and wrote her message.
-Alois was alerted by a friend to the viral nature of her note, and called the Applebee’s to complain. A server—not the one who waited on Alois—was fired for posting the charge slip online.
-Alois has expressed something like regret over this incident. In an interview on a local station, she said, “I don’t know why I wrote it. It was a lapse in judgment. That was how I was feeling at the time. Would I do it again? No, I would not. And this didn’t even have to go this far when there are so many more important things we could be speaking about.” [note: I did not transcribe a couple of “um’s” in this quote, but believe it is an otherwise accurate rendering] In an interview with thesmokinggun.com, she said, “My heart is really broken. I’ve brought embarrassment to my church and ministry.”

Some things that are less clear:
-If Alois was “allowed” to scratch out the included gratuity—legally and/or according to Applebee’s policy. I.e., is refusing to sign for an included gratuity the same as pulling of a “dine and dash”?
-How many people Alois was paying for. $34.93 seems like a lot for one person to spend at Applebee’s, but not very much for a party of 8 or 10.
-If Alois left a cash tip. She says she did ($6.29) because she felt bad after writing her note. If she did leave a tip, then she obviously didn’t stiff anyone, contrary to almost every media report. In fact, if her scribbling out of the automatic tip had no bearing on what she was being charged (which may be the case), she may have accidently double-tipped her server.
-If Alois was trying to get her server fired when she called.
-If the server who waited on Alois was fired or disciplined, or if those actions were reserved only for the server who posted the message on the internet.

If I was waiting for something exciting to happen right in my back yard, this might be as close as I get—and it’s a topic whose sides I am familiar with. So, without further ado, my consciousness will commence streaming right now:

1. The media has, for the most part, not reported (let alone confirmed the existence of) Alois’ cash tip. Some of the other details have varied, as well. One report said that Alois was in a party of 20 and ran up a bill of about $200. It seems that the media has viewed this story as titillating enough to report, but not significant enough to, you know, check the facts on. It’s interesting to me that there exists a type of story that can be both important, but not THAT important. There may be more of these types of stories than I realize.

2. No matter what unrealistically generous explanation I could come up with for Pastor Bell’s note (I’ve decided against putting “Pastor” in quotes, unlike many sites reporting this story), I still wondered, “But what were you thinking?” When she finally got her turn to speak, she claimed that she herself didn’t know what she was thinking.

I’m skeptical. See, when I say, “I don’t know what I was thinking,” it’s usually because, a) I do something so spontaneously and mindlessly that I don’t even feel like any conscious part of me actually decided to do it (like grabbing the tongue of a dog), or, b) I fail to do something that I should have thought to do (like shovel the walkway after it snows). To say “I don’t know what I was thinking” regarding something that takes initiative and thought, like writing a note?  It sounds like a euphemism for “If I were to say what I was thinking, it would sound so much more worse and/or embarrassing than it seemed at the time, I just can’t bear to speak it.”

For example, maybe she was thinking that this note would be funny. I agree that it is embarrassing when you try to be funny and end up doing something SO the opposite of funny that no one even realizes that you were trying to be funny. When I do that, I prefer to say, “I don’t know what I was thinking” than “This was an attempt at ironic humor.” Or maybe she was trying to glorify God with her words, letting her unsaved server see how God wants to be involved in every part of your life, including your bank account. That would be another embarrassing misjudgment. On the darker side, maybe Alois was angry and resentful about having to tip 18% and figured she would take out her anger on someone who had nothing to do with setting the policy.

Regardless, I would bet that, deep down, Alois knows what she was thinking but can’t bear to say it. I understand and even empathize.

3. Servers can usually tell if their patrons are Christians. Servers usually don’t like waiting on Christians, because they are regarded as poor tippers and because they often don’t drink alcohol (keeping the check low). Servers usually prefer not to wait on tables with children. They are high-maintenance, low pay-off. If you are a server and your host regularly seats large parties of Christians with children in your section, your host may be trying to tell you that you need to tip your host a little more generously (or that your host just doesn’t like you). Chains like Applebee’s might have safeguards against this kind of expression of grudges. I don’t know.

4. As a server, I didn’t mind waiting on parties of Christians with children (in moderation), because there were some non-financial benefits. For example, it gave me a chance to practice joyfully serving others even when there were no financial benefits for doing so. Also, it gave me a chance to “spy on” my Christian brethren to see how they treated people like bussers and servers outside of a church context. And, every now and then, Christians would tip pretty well (although this almost NEVER happened in large parties; my best chance for getting an especially large tip from a Christian was if they were in a party of 2).

5. Most servers care--at least somewhat--if their patrons enjoy their dining experience, even apart from how well they are tipped. Of course, this varies greatly. I have seen servers politely thank a party, wish them a good evening, then walk into the waiters’ station, look at the charge slip, and cuss out the people they just smiled farewell to. This is the exception. More often, servers will just kind of shake their heads and wonder why people can be so friendly and still so stingy. Most servers consider a 15% tip to be pretty stingy. They just do.

6. I do not love the tipping system here in America, but I do not hate it, either. As a server, I liked feeling (perhaps naively) that I could influence how much I made on any given evening by how well I did my job. As a patron, having to tip prevents me from eating out more often. Because I know—and have known for a long time—that the tipping system, love it or hate it, exists. It is beyond ridiculous for me to go out to eat, then act surprised or put out by having to tip. An automatic gratuity for large parties is also not a recent development. It has been around for at least 20 years (maybe 30). The 18% automatic gratuity has been around for at least 10 years (maybe 15 or 20). If I don’t like it, I can eat at McDonald’s or St. Louis Bread Company or Fuddruckers (and I do).

I do not believe that the quality of food at a restaurant like Applebee’s is light years ahead of any of those restaurants I just listed (even McDonald’s!). So why would someone choose Applebee’s over any of those restaurants? I think—and this is just my opinion—most people like to be waited on. It feels good telling people what you want and having them get it. I’m not passing judgment on that. I agree that it is a good feeling. But I doubt most people would admit it quite that way, especially people who resent tipping, because to do so would effectively amount to, “I came here to be waited on hand and foot, and I resent having to pay for it.”

(As an aside, I wonder if for some people, on some level, “having to tip” destroys the illusion of feeling like they deserve to be pampered like a king.)

7. When I do eat out, I see it as a chance to bless my server—and perhaps even to reflect God’s love and generosity to them. Nine times out of ten, my server will either do their job well or demonstrate a sincere desire to personally connect with me as a person. In other words, they either perform or they care. Sometimes both. Rarely neither. So nine times out of ten, I feel pretty good about blessing them with a couple of extra dollars.

Minimally, I know that a couple of extra dollars can actually make their day. That’s a trite phrase, but it is true. I’ve had it happen. There were days when my boss was mad at me, patrons were rude and demanding, the table I almost had seated in my section ordered a $65 bottle of wine, and so on. And that’s just at the restaurant. A lot of servers—like other people—have crappy things going on in their lives outside of work. As a waiter, there were days when getting a $3 tip on a $12 bill really was the highlight, and really was what I would go home and tell my wife about, and really did spark in my soul a measure of perspective, gratitude, and hope. What did it cost my patron to bestow these things upon me? $1.20. On a $12 bill, that’s the difference between a 15% tip and a 25% tip.

As a patron, I know that I won’t miss that $1.20. In fact, I cannot remember a single time regretting tipping a couple of extra dollars. It is money I don’t miss. On the other hand, as a waiter, I can probably rattle off a dozen times when I felt truly blessed by someone adding an extra $1, $2, or even $5 to their tip.

It seems to me that Christians, of all people, should jump at this opportunity to bless people in this way. It’s easy. It’s cheap. It’s almost guaranteed to encourage someone. And it seems, you know, kind of Christian-y.

Which brings me to the last reason I tip well when I eat out. Remember #3 above? The one about Christians being regarded as poor tippers? This reputation exists for a reason. I think that sucks. Like, really, really sucks. What a completely sucky reputation for an entire religion to have—especially one based on the gracious outpouring of God.

So I tip well because of the debt that my brothers and sisters have incurred by tipping poorly. It’s not fair that I have to do that. Neither is life. Neither, it so happens, is Christianity. The God of the Bible does not give us Christians what we deserve. He gives us infinitely more. It’s not fair.

In short, I see tipping as a chance to:
-offer hope and blessing to someone who needs it
-adjust a well-earned perception of Christians being stingy
-imitate the unfairness of God

All for a couple of bucks. What a deal.

8. Alois’s efforts to fix this situation, while ringing more sincere than, say, Lance Armstrong’s, are still a work in progress. I already talked about, “I don’t know why I wrote it.”

She goes on to say, “It was a lapse in judgment. That was how I was feeling at the time. Would I do it again? No, I would not.” Right… See, the problem is that everyone already thinks that that’s how you were feeling at the time, which is why everyone is so mad. And saying you would not do it again? If you had added, "Because I hurt another human being," that would be a step in the right direction.  But it kind of seems like you "wouldn't do it again" because "doing it" in the first place brought high levels of inconvenience upon you.  So, yeah.  In that case, only a masochist would “do it again.”

Alois continues with, “And this didn’t even have to go this far when there are so many more important things we could be speaking about.” Though you didn’t say exactly what those things are, I couldn’t agree more. We could probably agree that, for example, "sex trafficking" is one of those "more important things". Here’s the thing, though: Nobody is talking about your note instead of talking about sex trafficking. They are talking about your note instead of talking about the Kardashians or the Golden Globes or how their day at work was. Your note already IS the "more important thing" that they are talking about. And the victim that people feel like they are defending is the server that got fired. For the masses, this injustice is more immediate than sex trafficking because everyone knows a server. Your note has not distracted anyone from “more important things."  It has distracted them from less important things, and because of that, it has allowed them to feel like they are fighting injustice more than they actually are.

If you really want people to talk about sex trafficking (or the grace of God!) you can’t bring these things up in such a way that seems like you are using them to deflect indignation directed at you. If you really want people to hear what you have to say about sex trafficking (or the grace of God!), you need to generously tip your server. Then people will listen to you.

What appears to be the most recent quote from Alois reads, “My heart is really broken. I’ve brought embarrassment to my church and ministry.” This quote sounds like something is sinking in.

Alois, I feel for you. On the one hand, I don’t believe you were kind and generous to your server, and that should be embarrassing for a Christian; it’s not so much that you don’t deserve the backlash you received as it is that all Christians deserve backlash for the bad things we do, and for some reason most of the rest of us don’t have to experience it in quite this manner.

On the other side of the coin, people have been mean to you, and that’s no fun. People in this country tend to build up large supplies of moral indignation then pour it out all at once on situations that strike a genuine collective chord, but are curiously removed from “more important things” (think: the backlash directed at Kanye West for dissing Taylor Swift at the Video Music Awards a couple of years ago). You are probably not the devil incarnate. You are probably a generally sincere Christian that let an unsanctified spot of evil slip out in an unfortunate way. We all do it. Why your slip made it onto every major news outlet in the country, I don’t know.

Fortunately, for what you have done, God offers grace; for what has been done to you, God offers comfort; and from the midst of the wreckage, God offers opportunity.



  1. Love this line: "It’s interesting to me that there exists a type of story that can be both important, but not THAT important. There may be more of these types of stories than I realize." Our news media is lazy or understaffed and it's disappointing to see how often they neglect basic fact finding. They love stories like this because they don't seem to require much fact checking. They also like to report stories that reinforce an established narrative (Christians don't tip well).

    I believe that Alois regrets what she did, but I'm afraid you might be right about her regret being based in her own embarrassment and inconvenience. Has she made any effort at all to get the fired waitress rehired? That would do more to convince me than anything she's said.

    I've never worked in food service, but I try to tip well for a few reasons. I know the job is usually low-paying and difficult and it shouldn't be too hard to have some empathy for people busting their asses right before my eyes. Also, it just seems wise to me to treat someone with respect and generosity when they're handling my food.

    Great to hear from you Rob.

  2. Great to hear from you, too, my friend. When I began to read your comment, I got as far as "Love this line:" when my brain immediately thought, "He's going to mention grabbing the dog's tongue." It's amazing what the brain can think in between words of a sentence.

    When I wrote "There may be more of these types of stories than I realize," one of the voices in my head said in response, "Ya think?" It makes more sense when I think of "the media" as really a collection of people with time and money constraints (who might also be, as you said, lazy) having to make snap judgments. It shouldn't be surprising to me that facts are not always tracked down. But it still is.

    I wondered the same thing about Alois trying to get the server her job back, and had the same thoughts of, "THAT would be a step towards proving some sincerity here." I haven't read anything to that effect. But I do remember reading that Alois says that she apologized to the server. I can't find that detail anymore (though I didn't look very hard this time).

    A couple more details:
    -Apparently Alois DID double tip; her automatic gratuity was included in her charge in addition to the cash tip that she left.
    -The server who posted the charge slip says she did not believe that the signiture was legible, and if she had, she would not have posted it. As soon as she realized that some people on the internet enjoy trying to figure out things like that, she blotted out the signiture and even posted a fake description of the person hoping to throw e-sleuths off the trail, but it was too late.
    -Alois says the party was 10, not 8.

    Once the dust settles, I may try to contact her to see if she'll let me interview her. Could be interesting.

    Good point about the handling of the food. That would be a post all to itself. I have 3 incidents I could tell you about ranging from disgusting to so-absolutely-vile-I-wouldn't-feel-comfortable-writing-about-it-on-this-blog.

    Anyway, thanks for reading and for posting. Enjoy your week.

  3. VERY interesting topic to expound on. It felt like you were 'dancing with the devil' in relaying your empathy for the ill-tipper from your own experiences...both stated and UN-stated. I am dismayed by the factoid regarding the 15% minimum: Guess I'll stick to Fazoli's from now on.