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Tuesday, December 07 2004 19:00
The coffee hour after church seems, on the surface, to be like any other kind of social gathering. The smell of freshly brewed coffee greets the arrival of guests. People enjoy finding doughnuts and pastries to munch on, as they drink their coffee, tea, or juice. It offers much small talk as those present discuss politics, sports, personalities and the other staples of conversation.

To me, however, this weekly event has a meaning that goes beyond mere socializing. I consider it part of the experience of church. It can be seen as an extension of what happens during the public worship that precedes it. Coffee hour and liturgy have something vital in common.

In my tradition at least, the worship of God does not establish merely a one-to-one relationship, me to God. Instead, it forms a group of people into a community of spirit. We pray, not simply as individuals, but as those who have a spiritual bond that ties us to one another.

When, at a point in the liturgy, the time comes to profess the faith, the phrase used is “We believe in one God.” These words do not provide any quarter for egoism, for concentration on the self, but rather they focus attention on the bonds that make us one.

What I love about the gathering at coffee is the variety of people present: children and grown-ups, young adults and the old, people of color and whites, those with disabilities and the able-bodied, those of modest incomes and the rich, the highly schooled and those of more modest education, all come to share experiences with one another.

This shows forth a microcosm of what church is meant to be. Ideally, at least, we come together without pretension, minus the titles and achievements that set us apart in so much of daily life. Here, by virtue of the spiritual bond that mysteriously works within our souls, we are one.

If yours is a spirituality of finding God in all things, then the coffee hour is a happening where you may make that discovery. A French-speaking friend likes to play on the name of a commercial coffee establishment down the street, by calling our gathering “Au Bon Dieu.” She does so lightheartedly but this fanciful name does point to the presence of God in our midst.

In talking to others in this setting, you discover something of their satisfactions and their struggles. You learn of personal breakthroughs but also of trials and reverses. At least sometimes, people reveal what the quality of the past week has been for them. You can identify with them in both the highs and lows of their lives.

Inevitably, this may sound like pressing the case. After all, some will say, it’s just a plain old assembly of people who wish to eat, drink, and talk. Looking for further meaning here seems to border on absurd exaggeration.

But this objection ignores the frame of reference established here. This gathering, after all, takes place just after the community has worshiped God by joining together in prayer, song, and sacred gesture. The bonds that tie the congregation together have been given expression once again, and people have come away from that experience at least virtually strengthened in their identity as members of the community of faith.

Welcoming newcomers, visitors, and those who have returned gives further meaning to this weekly event. It makes a difference to those unfamiliar with the community and the area to find themselves warmly greeted on arrival. To those of us already long on site, it can prove stimulating to get acquainted with new people with the perhaps unfamiliar experiences they bring.

The people who are obviously hurting often bring out warm-hearted responses from members of the community at coffee. Some members of the community suffer from psychic problems or physical disabilities. Being able to find help in the community, even if only in the form of a sympathetic conversion, can make a difference in their morale. Somebody cares.

The smell of coffee is not incense, to be sure, nor does the conversation amount to prayer. Nonetheless, this hour has a spiritual value that makes some people who cherish faith, and those seeking it, return again and again.

Richard Griffin