Paul Prather: How you tip a waitress speaks to your beliefs

Missouri pastor's action betrayed faith

Contributing columnistFebruary 8, 2013 

Paul Prather

It was a small matter, maybe. Still, Christians took another hit.

I'm talking about the performance of the Rev. Alois Bell on Jan. 25 in a St. Louis Applebee's. After her meal, the minister crossed out an 18 percent tip on her bill. She was with a large party, and the restaurant's policy is to automatically add a gratuity if there are more than eight diners in a group.

"I give God 10 percent, why do you get 18," Bell wrote on the bill.

Another waitress, not the one serving Bell's table, later posted a photo of Bell's ticket on the Internet site Reddit.

The photo went viral.

Bell called Applebee's and raised Cain, according to multiple news reports. The posting waitress, Chelsea Welch, got fired.

Welch later said she'd earned $3.50 per hour at Applebee's and that with her tips she made on average $9 per hour—$1.65 over Missouri's minimum wage of $7.35 per hour, ABC News reported.

At some point, the minister told TheSmokingGun Web site that she'd actually left an 18 percent tip in cash, and that she was stunned by the publicity: "My heart is really broken. I've brought embarrassment to my church and ministry."

Who knows? Maybe she did leave the tip. Maybe she meant her note as a joke. Or maybe she meant exactly what she wrote, as I suspect. She certainly got Welch fired for bringing to light her snarky comment, and that's not charitable.

Bell's apparent attitude didn't much surprise me.

I don't even know her, but the way she acted might be more the rule among overtly Christian diners rather than the exception. I've been hearing stories like this for years from past or present waiters and waitresses.

In the restaurant business, it's almost a truism: People who make a point of referring to their religion often prove to be the stingiest, crankiest customers.

This is not some vicious blasphemy propagated by heathens trying to defame the holy church.

My wife Liz, to cite an example, tells similar stories.

She's no infidel. She's a serious Christian who, obviously, is married to a minister. She's a deacon, a Bible student and a tither.

But she used to be a waitress.

When she started a new job in Florida 25 years ago, she received sage advice from a more-experienced waitress.

" 'You never want to wait on a table that prays,' " Liz recalls her co-worker warning her. "And when I asked her why, she said, 'They usually stiff you on the tip, or else they'll just leave you a religious pamphlet.' "

The warning turned out to be well founded, Liz says.

To be fair, Liz also notes that an elder at the church she attended in Florida unfailingly tipped servers 30 percent, way above the norm.

So it's not that all Christians are chintzy. Many are generous.

The rub is that when people enter a place of business and broadcast their faith by praying over their food or leaving tracts or writing notes about God on their bills, they automatically appoint themselves as spokespeople for Jesus Christ.

Others, including the folks who work in the establishment, watch to see whether they're really full of the spirit or full of beans. Whatever these Christians do gets magnified in the workers' eyes and reflects on the Lord and his other children.

So if you're one of those very visible Christians, it's incumbent on you not to slander Jesus. Instead, act as he might: be humble, compassionate and generous.

As the late Corrie Ten Boom put it, hold everything in your hand lightly. Including your tip.

A few Christmases ago, Liz and I went out for breakfast at a local diner. It was packed. The waitresses and cook were harried.

Amid the hubbub, we struck up a conversation with the young woman serving us. We talked in quick snatches as she poured us coffee or brought jelly.

"You all are slammed," I said. "How'd you get stuck working on Christmas?"

She said she needed the money. She was a single mom. Waitressing was one of her two jobs. Her kids were with her mother, hoping for her shift to end so Santa Claus could come. She hadn't even had time to wrap their presents.

Then this crazy, beautiful thing happened.

This wasn't an expensive joint. A typical tip was probably a buck or so.

A customer near us finished his meal. Our perspiring waitress placed his check next to his plate. The guy picked it up. Just before heading toward the cash register, he handed her something in return.

"You did a good job, ma'am," he said. "Merry Christmas."

The woman looked at him, then at the piece of paper he'd given her.

She unfolded it.

It was a $20 bill.

She burst into tears. Right there behind the counter of a crowded restaurant, in front of everybody, she just stood and wept and shook.

I've had that image stuck in my head ever since.

The man didn't say anything about his religious beliefs.

He could have been a Christian. He could have been a heathen.

But I'd wager he did more to further the kingdom of God in that lady's heart than if he'd prayed a beautiful prayer over his waffle or handed her a fistful of tracts.

I heard a voice whisper in my own ear that morning. It was gentle, yet I heard it even above the rattling of dishes and calling out of breakfast orders.

The voice said to me, "Go thou, and do likewise."

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. Email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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