Where everybody knows your name

11/20/2007

By Bishop William W. Hutchinson
Louisiana Conference Now!

I am a vanilla Coke junkie. In particular, I am converted to the vanilla Cokes that are offered at Sonic Drive In. I have scouted the Sonics all over Louisiana and other points outside our state. My car almost automatically turns in to one if there is a sign on the highway or if that beautiful red and yellow sign should appear. It’s a passion I have had since I was a high school kid getting a vanilla Coke at Jackson Drug in beautiful downtown Hobbs, N.M.

On occasion, I stop by the Sonic on Government Street here in Baton Rouge on my way to work and order myself my addictive drink, and will also get a cherry limeade for (administrative assistant) Kathy (Moore). I might do that once or twice a month at most.

The other morning I pulled in and pushed the button for “service at the speed of sound.” The person on the other end welcomed me and asked if they might help me. I began by saying, “Yes, I’d like a medium vanilla coke and . . ..” I didn’t get the second order out of my mouth when the voice on the other end finished my sentence for me “. . . and a cherry limeade.”

I was stunned! Never have I ordered anything via a speaker system and have the person taking the order know what I wanted without even being face to face with me.

When the woman came out with the drinks, I asked her about the startling recognition. I said, “I can’t believe the person in the building knew what I wanted.” She said, “Oh, you’re famous!”

What did that mean? Am I the only person who orders a vanilla Coke? Since I am not there very often, and even if I were, how did they know what I was ordering? In the midst of my shock I was also impressed that they had this knowledge of me.

As I drove away I reflected on the deeper meaning of this experience. We’ve all heard the old Cheers television show song about going “where everybody knows your name,” and how that might apply to the church and radical hospitality.

How many times have people come to our worship services over and over, and they still leave as strangers and come back as a stranger. If we are so occupied with our own friends and family members in worship and look past anyone new, then they are going to remain a stranger to us. Shouldn’t we be able to call them by name, ask about their families and personal needs and make them “one of us” after the first two or three visits?

If we aren’t accomplishing this, then we’re not even keeping up with Sonic Drive In in “customer relations.” Being the church isn’t just about us and our satisfactions. Being the church means we are offering the life-giving love and grace of Jesus Christ to the strangers in our midst and making them welcome in God’s house and our circles of community. I encourage every church to take a serious look at ourselves to see how we are in radical hospitality. Do we know the visitor the next week when they return again? Can we call them by name? Are they important enough to us to be able to do that? Do we know anything else about them that will personalize our conversation? Just how interested are we in those who are coming to our church looking for the life-giving love of Jesus and a place to belong?

You can tell I was impressed by this whole sequence of events. I don’t expect it will ever happen again at any other Sonic. But it doesn’t have to. There was once an experience that absolutely blew me away. And now I’ll stop at that Sonic in preference to all others if I can.

It only takes once to be rebuffed. It only takes once to be personally recognized. It works the same at the church. I call upon us to work hard in this area as we travel our own journey and as we relate to others whose journeys bring them into our presence.

Hutchinson is the episcopal leader of the Louisiana Area of The United Methodist Church. This column originally appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of “Louisiana Now!,” the newspaper of the Louisiana Conference.