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Life Is A Cafeteria

Charles Mojapelo was colorful, charismatic South African, someone who could talk his way out of any problem. It was as if everyone at Yale knew him. He could stand and talk with a student, professor, and staff, and forget that he was already on a mission with another person. Charles simply had time for everyone, but most of all, he had time for me. I met Charles at Yale. He had been at the Yale Divinity School for a few years before I arrived, and so knew his way around town at a time when I did not.

A few weeks after our first meeting, he asked if I had been to the cafeteria at the corner of Prospect and Grove Street. I responded that I had not. He went on to describe this elaborate place where you could get any food under the sun. 

"Can you get some food from Africa?" I asked.

"Mehn, what planet are you on? There’s no Africa food. But there’s rice. Different types of rice, and Africans love rice, so there you have it," he responded.

"I will take you there," he said.

"I am ready, when you’re ready. Let’s go," I said.

"By the way, you pay to eat but I eat for free. I know everyone at the cafeteria. I will make you eat for free," he concluded.

Charles walked me to the cafeteria, and introduced me to the associate at the cash register: "Hello, this is my brother from Africa. Like me, he is a good guy but doesn’t have money. Let him come in and eat.’"

The associate responded, “Oh sure. Come in and eat. You’re always welcome to come and eat.”

I was taken aback by his introduction, but thankful for the blessing of being in a cafeteria where I can choose what I want to eat.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I walked in. I was shocked to see all of the different types of food under the sun! I didn’t know which food to pick. I was so blinded by the variety and richness of all that I saw that choosing what to eat became my immediate burden, although I knew I was at liberty to choose whatever I wanted.

Looking back, I have no issues with the idea that life itself as a cafeteria, and the events of the past several days has given me one more reason to think about Charles, the cafeteria at Yale, and life, itself, as being like a cafeteria.

Why don’t we all eat the same food at the cafeteria? How can we, if there’s so much to choose from? More to the point, how come the cafeteria doesn't serve just one kind of meal to everyone? This seems very basic, but until you believe at your core that we cannot all have everything at the cafeteria, if you believe that we cannot all believe in one thing, if you believe that we cannot all eat the same appetizer, entrée, and dessert, or even drink the same beverage at a cafeteria, you may not appreciate the richness of your own life’s story of God’s blessed diversity.

Many of you have been to a cafeteria before, a place where there is no one dish. There is a variety of dishes, and you do get to choose what you want. If we can learn something more deeply about the recent elections - and most importantly about our own lives - you’d come to realize that life is like being in a cafeteria, in that we get to choose what type of food we want. More importantly - to get what you want, you have to pick it yourself. This choice is at the heart of what it means to be an American, and it reminds me of a story a grandfather told his grandchildren of how he came to live and become successful in America.

He told them about the many trains, and the large ship that took him from his home in Eastern Europe. He told them of being processed along with other immigrants at Ellis Island, and how he had gone to a cafeteria in lower Manhattan to get something to eat. He had sat down at an empty table and waited a long time for someone to take his order, but nobody came. Finally, a woman with a tray full of food sat down opposite him, and she explained how a cafeteria works to him: "You start at the end," she said, pointing towards a stack of trays. "Then you go along the food line, and pick out what you want. At the other end, they will tell you how much you have to pay."

The grandfather reflected for a moment and said, "I soon learned that this is how everything works in America. Life is a cafeteria here. You can get anything you want - even very great success - if you are willing to pay the price. But you will never get what you want if you wait for someone to bring it to you. You have to get up and get it yourself."

You have the glory of making your own choices.

People choose one thing today, and choose a different thing tomorrow - and there’s nothing bad about that. People begin from the back, or the bottom, and work their way up the ladder. The triumph of one political party, or individual, over another doesn’t mean the end of that story. 

Oliver Goldsmith, an Anglo-Irish poet wrote this many years ago:

He who fights and runs away.

May live to fight another day;

But he who is battle slain,

Can never rise to fight again.

As far as many of us can attest, no one was slain during our recent elections. As far as many of us can attest, no one person was killed in his or her attempt to vote. As far as many of us can attest, the ability to cast a vote is our pride and joy. And being a successful country primarily depends on our ability to vote and change leadership in a legal, peaceful, and transparent manner. The beauty of democracy is that it invariably gives life - even to the vanquished. That’s why Goldsmith’s words ring true…He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day. 

In so far as you have life, you can fight another day... and so why act as if this is the end of the story? Our collective success depends on our ability to believe that we still have life, and so can work our way back, to win hearts and minds. For me, as far as the elections are concerned, this should be our defining story.

Like our ongoing auction and the Christ Church Live Auction this Saturday, we get to make choices like we're at a cafeteria. In that same way, our elections are over. But on the menu at the cafeteria going forward is healing, reconciliation, collaboration, compassion, compromise, brotherliness, and love. On the menu is also bitterness, hurt, hatred, rancor, disappointment, contempt, and disdain.

Remember, you can pick what you want at the cafeteria. But if I were you, I will pick the values (the food) that fills, nurtures, and leaves me yearning for more. 


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