by Cathy Warner
When I first joined a church at the age of twenty-four, I was given a pledge card and a mini-lesson on tithing, a quick overview of the denomination’s social principles, and was quickly sprinkled with water since I hadn’t been baptized before. Then I pledged my prayers, presence, gifts, and service and began to live into the joys and obligations of membership.
My first church, though, the place where I labored and loved, where I forged community and found identity, where I gave everything I had and was given unconditional acceptance—along with the bread (well bun) of life, minimum wage, and a yearly Christmas card from Ray Kroc—was McDonald’s.
I was newly sixteen when I was hired and learned its creeds: “Quality, service, cleanliness,” and “If you have time to lean, it’s time to clean,” and its corporate psalms: “At McDonald’s, we do it all for you,” and “Nobody can do it, like McDonald’s can.” Our theological education came in the form of the latest jingles printed on thin 45 rpm records and distributed to every employee.
Like the evangelists who ask, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” I stood sentry behind the stainless steel counter in my brown polyester uniform with its embroidered arches over my heart. “Welcome to McDonald’s,” I would say, a disciple quoting my teacher. “May I take your order, please?” beckoning customers who staggered in from the parking lot and through the double glass doors to stand before our altar. The supplicants, hungry and thirsting, stood before me, their hands folded on the shiny counter, as if it were a communion rail, their eyes looking heavenward at the menu board for manna.
And in the varied ways we present ourselves before the altar for Eucharist, some would say, “yes,” some “thank you,” others, “give me,” or “I want.”
“Would you like French fries with that?” I would ask, “or an apple pie?” an up-sell part of our required call and response. I ticked boxes on the order form, snapped open a white paper-bag, and began the Communion ritual as I skated from warming bin to fry station, the crepe soles of my shoes grease-coated with fries fallen to the floor. I would fill a soda cup, snap on a lid, ask, “would you like ketchup?” toss a packet in the bag, fold the top of the bag down twice, and slide it toward the customer, arches forward, presenting the elements, along with my benediction, “Thank you and come back again.”
I entered Ronald McDonald’s fold the week after my stepfather left, my mother and me marooned in the Sacramento Valley town we’d inhabited only a year. My mother and I had followed him from Southern California, home to both of us since our births, as if he were Moses leading us to the promised land. But his promises broke like clay tablets, and instead of walking on sand in fog, we knelt in dirt and tomatoes as we gleaned from a friend’s father’s field in advance of the mechanized harvester. A 1970s Ruth and Naomi calling this strange wilderness home, we built a life in a house that bordered a field where mosquitos bred in the irrigation ditch and small planes regularly dusted yellow powder over our cars along with the crops.
Finding a tabernacle beneath the golden arches, my devotion and responsibilities increased over two years from sweeping the parking lot and lobby to taking orders in the drive-thru, manning the grill, cleaning equipment, counting cash registers, and closing the store on school nights.
I served busloads of football players after Friday night games, high school boys who’d won or lost to my high school’s players while I worked. They laughed and shouted across the dining room, devouring two and three Quarter Pounders each. Saturday mornings brought senior citizens who shivered outside waiting for the manager to unlock the doors at precisely 7a.m. so they could order Egg McMuffins and black coffee and shuffle to their regular tables as religiously as worshippers return to their pews each week. Spanish-speaking families converged after Mass at Holy Rosary Sunday afternoons ordering hamburg-queso and papitas and Big Macs—the name like God’s, understandable in any language.
My faithfulness was rewarded with five cent an hour raises every review period, my name on the employee of the month plaque with corresponding photos in the newspaper twice, and a promotion to assistant manager on my two-year anniversary, which I declined in order to attend college. I punched my last timecard two days before I left for a dorm room and never returned to that sanctuary, not even as a customer.
But forty years later, I still carry the memory of that temple on West Court Street. Eight years before I first attended church on my own volition, and not as a child interloper dragged to a service after a sleepover, McDonald’s was the cradle of my spiritual formation. I found hope offered there before I had any inkling of the numinous realm beyond Big Macs and Filet of Fish that might heal the wounds of extramarital affairs and divorce cast onto the second and third generations.
McDonald’s was a home unlike mine, with adults present, with rules and procedures and schedules, a place where consistency and responsibility were noticed and rewarded. It was a place where I was given a free meal from a fixed menu each shift, a ten-minute break five nights a week where I ate at a table with others, instead of scrounging for leftovers I ate in front of the TV alone. At McDonald’s a manager wouldn’t run off without saying goodbye like my stepparents had. And—unless you were caught stealing from the register and fired on the spot—a two-week severance notice could be counted on.
The dozen high school kids who worked alongside me, from the acne pocked boy with the hand tremor always assigned to the grill, to the brainy and mean high school senior managing burger production, to the thespian singing show tunes while he mopped the floor, to the pregnant dropout turned assistant manager, became the people I relied on and trusted. I asked the boy who always smiled wide when he said, “Macs are up,” to my junior prom and we dated for a year. I spent the summer after high school having a fling with the weekend maintenance man working his way through college. The red-haired senior with a hairstyle that turned up like Ronald McDonald’s married the skinny graduate perpetually assigned to fries and shakes. Toiling thirty to forty hours a week in Ronald’s domain while attending school, where else would we find love? Nights off might find us together still, without our hair in buns or ponytails, without our white hats and brown uniforms, wearing street clothes, drinking from red plastic cups instead of white paper, partying with the emancipated minor whose apartment complex had a pool, throwing rice from our pockets at midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
We didn’t all get along, we didn’t even all like each other, but when we came to work and donned our uniforms, we became a team who conquered the lunch rush, who disdained our shoddy peers working at the new Burger King next door, our respect and loyalty extending beyond our assigned stations, beyond the parking lot, beyond the glow of golden arches in our rearview mirrors. We formed a family, choosing however unlikely, each other, the way a worshipping community draws people of varied social and economic backgrounds, political leanings, theological understandings, and personal interests, binding them together by what might seem a shared love of singing in the choir, of potluck coleslaw, or a particular pastor’s preaching, but who are woven together by nothing more or less than the belonging we feel once we taste the eternal nature of God’s love.
You might crave a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, large fries, and a chocolate shake. I might crave a hot apple pie, or something as reliable and radical as Jesus. We might want it all: the bread, the body, and one another to cling to while we wait for the kingdom to arrive in all its fullness. And who is to say some forms of these earthly hints at salvation are sweeter, purer, worthier than others? “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” the psalmist reminds us. “It’s all good,” the young man behind the counter says when my fumbled change pings to the floor at his feet.
“Feast on him in your heart,” one of my pastors used to say as held the bread out to members of my tiny congregation during Communion. One by one, we stood before him underneath a century old clapboard steeple and reached for the loaf to tear a piece that would sustain us for weeks or months to come, as it had the loggers and saloon owners and retirees who shuffled the aisles before us. But we could’ve been anywhere—walking along the beach at low tide, crouched between rows of ripened tomatoes, or slinging burgers at a fast food franchise—all of us receiving what is given in remembrance of such mighty acts.
Cathy Warner is author of Home By Another Road, and Burnt Offerings, and editor of Poemographs, and Viral Verse: Poetry of the Pandemic. Her writing has appeared in dozens of publications. She lives, writes, sells real estate, worships, and renovates homes in Western Washington. Find her at cathywarner.com.