The Common Good

Blessed Are the Tip Leavers

There are two personality flaws that I consider to be more or less fatal: being cheap and being unkind to the wait staff.

Receipt, from TheSmokingGun.com
Receipt, from TheSmokingGun.com

By “cheap,” I don’t mean frugal. I’m talking about the kind of economic stinginess that goes far beyond being a good steward of your budget and resources. Cheap is miserly, selfish, and, I believe, based in fear. And nothing good is wrought when fear is your motivation.

Another word to describe this kind of cheap is more commonly employed in British English than in our own American lexicon: “mean.” Meanness connotes the habit of being ungenerous and petty. 

This meanness is what the first fatal flaw and the second have in common. If you are rude, condescending, or just plain nasty to your server in a restaurant, it is, in the immortal words of Liz Lemon who crossed over last week into the eternity of syndication, a deal breaker.

The only thing worse than being cheap and nasty to the wait staff is invoking your religious beliefs to justify your actions. And that is, sadly, precisely what one pastor did when she attempted to stiff her waitress after church one recent Sunday night at a Missouri Applebee’s.

On Jan. 25, Alois Bell, pastor of the tiny Word Deliverance Ministries church in St. Louis, headed to the local Applebee’s with nine of her congregants – four other adults and five children – for a post-worship dinner. When the unidentified server returned with the bill for $39.43 at the end of the meal, Bell crossed out the automatic 18 percent gratuity (added to parties of six or more), wrote in the tip amount of “0” and the following handwritten message: “I give God 10%, why do you get 18?” Then she signed the credit card receipt “Pastor Alois Bell.”

When Bell’s server showed the insulting receipt her co-workers, Applebee’s waitress Chelsea Welch snapped a photo of the slip of paper and its offending message and later posted it online in the Reddit.com atheist forum. The post quickly went viral.

After a friend clued Bell in to her Internet notoriety, the pastor called Applebee’s to complain and Welch subsequently lost her job.

Talk about adding insult to injury. In an interview with TheSmokingGun.com, Bell said she felt brokenhearted about the incident. “I’ve brought embarrassment to my church and ministry,” Bell, 37, said. But she stopped short of apologizing to her server or the newly unemployed Welch. 

Instead, taking a page from the Lance Armstrong Guide to Pseudo-Apologetics, Bell described stiffing the waitress and her (surely) mean note as “a lapse in judgment that has been blown out of proportion.” 

Clearly, Bell , who claims she left a $6 tip in cash – an amount that is more than a dollar shy of the $7.09 amount comprising an 18 percent tip, but 8.5 cents more than a customary 15 percent gratuity – is sorry that her actions were made public and that she has been embarrassed and vilified, but she doesn’t sound the least bit sorry for what she did. 

And that sucks. Bell should know better. According to TheSmokingGun.com

A mother of three, Bell heads a 15-member church that rents a storefront space. Bell said she has a separate full-time job — which she declined to describe — and tithes 10 percent of her earnings to the church.

In addition to her fledgling ministry, Bell has authored three slim books —covering topics like fasting, prayer, and religious teaching — that are available for purchase through an online vanity press. One 28-page volume examines spiritual nourishment, complete with references to candy and junk food. The $10 paperback is titled "Watch the Hand that Feeds You."

According to her biography, Bell “gave her life to Christ in 1997 while she was pregnant and homeless with her youngest son.” Living at the time in a Catholic homeless shelter, Bell recalled that she was laying in her bed one afternoon when “the Lord touched her heart and she invited him in.”

Look, these are lean times for most of us. Money is tight. I’m sure, given her history, Pastor Bell watches her budget closely. But to stiff or under-tip her server is not an acceptable response to this austere era. And to claim some kind of divine imprimatur for her meanness is just tawdry.

Waiters and waitresses work very hard. Even in the finest of restaurants, serving often is a thankless, humbling task. And I say that as a former waitress. The difference between a good tip and a bad tip, a pleasant interaction with patrons or one in which they treat you like crap, makes all the difference in the world.

The year between graduating from college and beginning my graduate studies almost 20 years ago, I did time as a barista at a gourmet café and waiting tables at a not-so-fine-dining establishment not unlike Applebee’s in the suburbs of Chicago. The hourly wage that restaurant servers make, which is now about $3.50 and was even less in the early 1990s, amounts to little more than pocket change. Waiters and waitresses depend on tips to make their living and put food on their own tables. 

While some customers are pleasant and gracious, far too many are not. Too many ignore the fact that the hands that prepare and serve their meals belong to an actual human being, with feelings and needs. 

Then there are the patrons who seem to find sadistic joy in tormenting servers. People who do so are not decent human beings and should pray an extra-long blessing of protection over their food. 

In some cultures where servers are paid a living wage, gratuities are just that – extras that are optional for the customer. But here in the United States, gratuities are a bit of a misnomer. They’re much closer to payment for services rendered than a bonus for doing a good job. 

Big parties – particularly large groups with children – can be even more grueling for servers. The job is harder. The kids make a mess. There’s more running back and forth involved, more dishes to schlep, more glasses to refill, and orders to keep straight. 

Bell’s stingy and callous actions were exacerbated exponentially by her smug invocation of her position and beliefs. To answer her own question, “I give God 10 percent, why should you get 18?” might I suggest that the pastor consider giving both 20 percent as a means of atoning for her sins?

What would Jesus have done in Bell’s place? 

Conveniently, there is a Gospel story where Jesus interacts with the wait staff. Just before entered Jerusalem, a dinner was given in his honor. During the meal, a woman – perhaps Mary Magdalene – who likely was helping prepare and serve the dinner, broke open a bottle of expensive perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet. Judas Iscariot complained about the server’s actions, wondering aloud why she had “wasted” such the perfume when it could have been sold and the money given to the poor (or perhaps found its way into this own pocket.) 

Judas was cheap. And he was mean to the wait staff. 

Jesus was kind and appreciative. No word on what kind of a tip he left (if any were customary at the time – I’m guessing not), but our Lord gave the server his love and appreciation, as well as his grace and eternal salvation. So there’s that. 

What can we learn from Pastor Bell’s missteps?

Be kind. Be generous. And if you’re going to stiff the waitress, please, for the love of God, leave your clerical credentials and spiritual arrogance at the door. 

Cathleen Falsani is a Featured Writer for Sojo.net. A veteran religion journalist who specializes in the intersection of faith and culture, Cathleen is the author of four books, including The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, the memior Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, and The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. Follow Cathleen on Facebook and Twitter @GodGrrl.

Photo: Applebee's receipt, courtesy TheSmokingGun.com

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