It’s rare for Episcopalians to ask, “Where did you find Christ?” But in Stinkbomb’s case, he found Christ in a Costco. Not in church, in a Costco.
For the record, we’re not talking about a painting on black velvet of some blonde-haired, blue-eyed dude with a bad haircut holding a lamb. Nor are we talking a figurine, located next to the Christmas gnomes, proudly sporting a “Made in China” label. And no, Stinkbomb is not talking about a coupon code or an instant discount.
So how did Stinkbomb find Jesus in a Costco? And why didn’t he find Jesus at the Episcopal parish in which he grew up?
To understand the answer, we need some context.
Stinkbomb grew up in a loving, educated, affluent family. A private school student, he didn’t really understand that others didn’t live like his family did.
This wasn’t so much an assumption as a lack of knowledge. Because he’d never really known anyone with different life experiences, he didn’t realize they existed.
But somewhere along the way, Stinkbomb decided to do something useful with himself. Like earning the money to pay for at least some of his education. And to have additional money for beer on weekends.
As a result, Stinkbomb worked on and off at a Costco. That was, as they say on Planet Episcopal, a formation experience.
In fact, Costco probably would have been a good long-term career. Many employees in the store had been there for years and loved it, and the masses would have been spared listening to Stinkbomb droning on most Sunday mornings.
The crew at Stinkbomb’s store was really diverse, reflecting every race, ethnicity, gender and religious tradition
But the diversity went much further, including the full range of the human experience.
- An elderly woman, dying of cancer, afraid and lonely, who came to work mainly to avoid her fears, smiling all the while, even as she grew visibly weaker.
- A late-teen, obviously impoverished, who clearly did not always get enough to eat. While he never said anything about it, his situation was painfully clear.
- Several persons, well past retirement age, who due to divorce or other factors beyond their control, had been forced to return to work.
- A grandmother, once happily retired, back to work in order to prevent her grandson from having to borrow to pay for college.
Then there were the ladies, often from Central America, who patiently folded clothes all day long, even as shoppers indifferently pulled items out, then tossed them back, now crumpled, with barely a glance at the article itself. Many spoke little English, but they could always be counted on for a smile or words of kindness, even though they spent hours doing excruciatingly boring work. And they worked hard to support their families, often helping others move to the United States to escape violence and oppression.
Also noteworthy were the infinitely patient folks at the returns desk who managed to smile, even as members brought back small appliances they claimed had stopped working on the first use, despite having obviously been “rode hard and put away wet” many, many times.
Religion-wise, team members ranged from a large swath of twenty-something Nones, to Catholics, to conservative Muslims, to fundamentalist members of the Church of the Nazarene. But it never mattered—we all genuinely cared for each other.
Tying everything together was a strong corporate culture. To get promoted, employees had to:
- Demonstrate consistent genuine concern for others.
- Be an ally, or someone who works to understand and support others.
- Display integrity at all times, in all situations.
And while, like a creed, these requirements were in writing, there was little need for them to be in writing.
Because caring, concern, and teamwork were baked into life at Costco.
Whether it was helping pull carts under a blazing hot sun, sharing lunch with the team member who didn’t get enough to eat, or the thousands of dollars raised by employees to help the family of an employee who died unexpectedly in her thirties, love, caring, and an appreciation for diversity was just part of the job. It didn’t matter if you were black, white, hispanic, or anything else.
And while LGBT issues still roil some parts of the church, no one at Costco cared. Indeed, one of the most popular associates was a flamboyant teen who made Ru Paul look downright macho.
Even when conflict arose, it was handled respectfully, with a focus on understanding what had happened and finding a solution. That includes the kid, not terribly bright, who crawled into the dumpster. This, a serious safety offense, was dealt with not in a punitive way, but with a focus on caring for his safety and making sure he got additional training. Yet at most companies this is a fire-on-the-spot safety violation.
In short, we were a family, and Stinkbomb loved being part of it. Indeed, it was there at Costco that Stinkbomb learned to appreciate the depth and breadth of humanity, and the range of human experience.
It was a formation experience.
To Episcopalians, that sounds counter-intuitive. No book studies. No sermons. No sacred circles. But the love was tangible and something lived out every day, in ways large and small. No building beloved community. Being beloved community.
Stinkbomb’s time at Costco also contrasts sharply with life at his childhood parish. While better than most, there was more than once that the phrase “nest of vipers” fell short. More like “nest of vipers doused in scalding water.”
At that church, diversity was not a big deal.
In fact, Stinkbomb will have you know we had all kinds of diversity—not just folks with grey hair, but people with black hair, brown hair, blond hair. Even someone with purple hair.
Similarly, Stinkbomb would look around on Sundays and see dress shoes, running shoes, Jimmy Choos, Manolo Blahniks, Valentinos, Christian Louboutins. Incredible diversity.
Not just that, but we had diversity of age. While about 65 percent of the parish was 65 or older, at least 12 of us were under age 20. In fact, when Stinkbomb reluctantly showed up for events, he singlehandedly knocked about a year off the average age of the group. But then with only about a dozen people showing up for events, that wasn’t the accomplishment it might otherwise be.
And we had a great food pantry program. Once a week, folks would climb into the Range Rover or Bimmer, head to church, and hand out bags of food with a pointedly sunny smile, never once learning the name of the person they were helping or anything about them.
There were a few people in the parish experiencing what they said were financial difficulties. Typically, this reflected a downturn of a few hundred points in the Dow Jones, which wiped out a portion of retirement savings. Only one week at the Cape this summer—damn!
And while team members at Costco would gladly help you on a busy day, folks at church weren’t nearly so nice. Stinkbomb well remembers the time an over-scheduled flower guild member aka soccer mom forgot to do the Sunday flowers. Caught up in taking kids to soccer, swimming, football, PTA meetings and more, she probably just got overwhelmed. But judging from the response of the good Christian ladies in the flower guild, her offense was right up there with kidnapping the Lindbergh baby.
It was at least a year before the collective cold shoulder ended. Meanwhile, her son’s diagnosis with advanced cancer got zero notice from folks at the church, let alone the flower guild. But by gosh, those flowers made it to the altar, and the bulletin reminded us that the flowers were dedicated to the Glory of God.
Similarly, one young man failed socially in spectacular fashion when he neglected to show up for the “in” Christmas party. Hosted by a wealthy retired couple, it was a lavish event, with mountains of food and drink, music, and more, all hosted in an exquisitely decorated home.
Well, forget him. He went down in history along with Pontius Pilate, Mrs. O’Leary and her cow, Attila the Hun and a few other notables. The sheer insolence of no-showing! No invitation next year, lots of icy looks in the following months, and more. Peace on earth, goodwill to all, my backside!
Speaking of those scalded vipers, there were a couple of brouhahas at the vestry where the vipers would have been a calming influence. Or too scared to come into the room.
Sharing the details isn’t appropriate but Stinkbomb can assure you — the level of anger in the room was in direct, inverse correlation to the seriousness of the issues at hand. And the nastiest liked to sign their communiques with “Your Sister in Christ” or similar camouflage. (If you get one of those emails and it mentions Stinkbomb, his advice is to immediately request proof of life.)
And while things like the altar guild flowers brought the wrath of the AAG (Almighty Altar Guild) down upon the head of the offender, such wrath was conspicuously absent when a prominent person in the parish was discovered to have “misspent” funds, which Stinkbomb thinks is a very polite way to describe writing checks from church accounts to pay for personal expenses. Not the emergency room kind, but designer clothes, a BMW, jewelry for the woman on the side, that sort of thing.
In fact, the only retribution meted out was directed at the person unfortunate enough to have discovered the fraud in the first place. “I know s/he took the money, but I like them and I can’t believe they did it. Obviously he has a grudge against [him/her].”
That’s even less logical than one of Stinkbomb’s sermons. But the end result was crystal clear—the discloser was not welcome in the church. S/he took the hint, left, and took a pass on organized religion while they were at it.
Nor has anyone ever tried to fix that mess. Somehow, Stinkbomb imagines that’s going to be high on the list of discussion points when parishioners arrive at the Pearly Gates — or points south.
Nice going, folks.
Nor was the gossip any better.
Spotting it was easy; it usually was prefaced with, “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but….” (Ever helpful, Stinkbomb usually interjected, “You’re right, you shouldn’t be telling me this. But thank you anyway.”) But the Gossip Trail, much like the Silk Road of antiquity, was arduous, spanning continents and generations and filled with treachery and deceit.
So, even as a preacher’s kid, and a sheltered one at that, Stinkbomb grew up with a deep distrust of the church. And why not? Jesus himself said, “By their fruits you shall know them.” And the fruits of a church-based diet could make you sick faster than eating a dozen rotten eggs.
Even at its best, church was ineffectual, self-centered, organizationally narcissistic, and oddly homogenous.
That begs the question: Which was the family system? Costco? The church? Both?
If we assume that family systems are built around love and commitment to each other, the only possible answer is Costco.
Where does that leave the church? It’s hard to say, but Stinkbomb thinks the closest parallel would be the Greek system at many colleges. Consider:
- Many come from white, middle- or upper-middle-class backgrounds.
- A sense of entitlement abounds.
- Normal social strictures, like kindness, compassion, and integrity fall by the wayside when a popular person in the Greek system, often a narcissist, takes the lead.
- Amorality is the usual stance, with peer influence leading to forays into immorality. (There’s a word Stinkbomb hears far too rarely in the church. But immorality is alive and well and needs to be called by name. Say his/her name, folks.)
- Far too often, it’s about following the group.
- It’s rare for someone in the group to impose boundaries; instead, these usually are put in place by school officials or law enforcement.
- When misconduct occurs, members circle the wagons.
- Once folks leave, they often find it’s healthier to not look back. “Oh, to be a kid again,” as they laugh about their sordid behavior.
Of course, there are pockets of integrity in the church. But given the level of dysfunction in the church, it is hard to maintain faith when waves of ugliness crash repeatedly over our heads.
For that reason, Stinkbomb actively discourages parishioners from getting involved in the machinations of the diocese. Those who do, do so with full knowledge of Stinkbomb’s biases, and know that, at the first sign of trouble, they are encouraged to pull up stakes and return to the tranquil waters of parish life.
But far too many have gotten hurt thinking, “If I could just get folks to see my point,” even as they get drawn ever closer to the precipice.
And that is Stinkbomb’s advice to the church: Above all, do no harm. If we could just manage that, we’d be much closer to the kingdom of God that we all claim to seek.