In the pecking order of academic life, Martin the kitchen manager is to the faculty and administration the closest person to the status of persona non grata or, maybe, what wives are called in the First Epistle of Peter, “the weaker vessel”, but what Jesus called “the least”.
In physical stature, Martin stands six-feet-eight inches tall. He’s a big man, hunched over at the upper back and shoulders from many years bending over the grill, serving up food from behind the lunch counter, clearing and washing the dishes of the seminary cafeteria.
It’s been a rough year at seminaries all across the country. Faculties, administrations, and Boards of Trustees have struggled with and against each other to make hard decisions that give some realistic assurance of institutional survival, or, as they euphemistically describe it, “sustainability.” People like Martin have little to no voice in whatever decisions are made.
Thursday morning, my third day staying at the seminary Guest House, I wander across campus to the seminary cafeteria for a cup of coffee. Martin is there. I ask whether he’s a student. He’s older – maybe 60 something – but that’s not unusual these days with second career people going to seminary.
“No,” he says. “I just work here.”
“So, you’re staff? How long have you worked here at the seminary?”
“Twenty years,” he says. “But I’m not on staff, I just run the kitchen.”
“So you’re an independent contractor?”
“Sort of,” he says with a delightful impish smile. “I’ve never had a contract. We do it with a handshake. They give me the space. I do the cooking. It’s all done with a handshake.”
Early in the morning Martin makes two pots of coffee and puts out the paper cup for the honor system. $1./cup. He chats with whoever comes by…if they strike up a conversation. He does not intrude. He’s just a peaceful, quiet presence who goes about setting up the kitchen and preparing the food for the daily lunch menu.
“Do you know that it takes 1.6 pounds of food for a chicken to produce one egg?” he asks. “Duck eggs are bigger and they’re better for you than chicken eggs. It takes 2.4 pounds of food to produce a duck egg, but the duck doesn’t eat grain feed; the duck just roams around and eats whatever’s there. It’s healthier and more sustainable.”
“Where’d you get that information? How do you know that?” I ask.
“Here, I’ll show you.” He takes out his iPhone and calls up the script from National Pubic Radio (NPR).
I pour myself a cup of coffee and go down the corridor to the bookstore.
Half an hour later, Martin drops by the bookstore to say good morning to the bookstore manager. The bookstore serves free coffee but the first customer, who’s pouring herself a cup, says they’re out of artificial creamer. Martin raises his hairy eyebrows with a smile and asks why people would put chemicals in their bodies if they didn’t have to, but says it in such a playful way that no one seems to take offense. As a coffee drinker who uses that powdered stuff, I ask myself the same question but hearing Martin ask it throws a different light on the question.
Then it dawns on me. I hadn’t paid for my coffee at the cafeteria. I’d forgotten to put my $1 in the paper cup. I’d violated the honor system! I give Martin a five dollar bill. “I don’t have change,” he says. “It’s on the house.”
For the rest of the day, I keep running into Martin in his black t-shirt, black trousers, black socks, and black shoes. He moves slowly. People seem to seek out this gentle giant, the “weaker vessel” – the guy at the bottom of the pecking order – here at the seminary.
He catches me in the hall. He knows there are six of us who gather annually at different locations for renewal, reflection, and friendship. “I don’t know whether your group is planning on coming for lunch, but if you are, come early. There’s a large group coming. If you come by 11:30 you should be fine. Just wanted you to know.”
The group has different plans for lunch, but I need downtime. Time out from the intensity of group life. I’m an introvert who needs alone time. I excuse myself from the group’s plans and go the cafeteria after which I’ll take a quick nap.
During lunch Martin welcomes by name as they place their orders with him at the lunch counter. He looks them in the eye and smiles; they smile back. When most everyone has finished lunch, three faculty and the Academic Dean remain seated together in lively conversation. They signal to Martin to join them. The “weaker vessel” among the “stronger vessels” takes a seat and listens. I observe from a distant table, reading Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological – Economic Vocation, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda’s book I’ve just purchased at the bookstore. I’m wondering whether the Dean and tenured faculty who have contracts recognize the structural disparity in which they are all enmeshed. I wonder if “the stronger vessels” understand love the way Cynthia Moe-Lobeda does, as “ecological-economic vocation” that resists structural evil as it pertains to the seminary’s own structures. My guess, looking on from a distance, is that they have a sense of it, but I still wonder. They’re there on contracts; Martin is there on a handshake and doesn’t seem to want anything more.
By late afternoon I’ve spotted Martin four different times sitting around campus with students, faculty, and administrators. Even at six-foot-eight he floats like a butterfly, hunched over but still alighting gently wherever he goes, quietly engaging others where they are.
It occurs to me that Martin is the unofficial, unpaid Chaplain of this community. His eyes see everything but act as though they are blind. His ears hear everything – all sides of the issues that sometimes roil academic institutions into infernos of accusations, counter-accusations, warring camps, and gossip factories – but he hears nothing and speaks nothing. “I’m just the Lord’s humble servant, the guy who makes the coffee” he had said, the one working behind from the kitchen counter, serving up duck egg omelets with fresh vegetables, and offering good coffee for a buck on the honor system, on nothing more than a handshake.
I leave the seminary thinking: I want to be more like Saint Martin of the Handshake.