NEW YORK — Three years ago, when moving to Manhattan was still a dream, our oldest son led us to 84th and Amsterdam. “Best burgers in New York,” he promised.
We found a tiny eatery called Harriet’s Kitchen: two tables, the owner at the counter, and a small kitchen tended by a solitary cook, plus a deliveryman in constant motion.
Both tables were occupied, so we took our food outside to the sidewalk, where many a meal is eaten in Manhattan. We enjoyed what were, in fact, terrific hamburgers. Thick, juicy, cooked from scratch, covered with onions.
Best in New York? Hard to say. But good enough that I have returned many times for the food and to chat with owner Don Berger, a former naval architect who began here 20 years ago with a dinner-only menu featuring “comfort foods” like meatloaf and chicken potpie. A son suggested “Chicken & Droppin’s” for its name. But one day a relative named Harriet was visiting, and Berger’s wife said, “There’s your name.”
Seven years ago, he added hamburgers to his menu and opened for lunch. Most customers call for delivery.
To me this is New York City: small shops run by families, not the drab sameness of national chains; and proprietors like Don Berger, who is happy to share his opinions about politicians and baseball, not staffers who treat customers as a nuisance.
This is why I moved to the Big Apple. Not to gaze in awe at the super-wealthy, who claim Manhattan as their parade ground, but to join a colorful economy of homegrown enterprises and to make my own small difference in a world of great need.
I am not some sort of Jeffersonian romantic. I realize that sometimes bigger is, in fact, better, and the changing costs of doing business argue against small enterprises. Yet I also believe that any worthwhile enterprise needs to behave as if it was small and its survival depended on serving people well. Even mega-stores can train employees to answer questions eagerly.
My passion is faith communities. Healthy congregations make this a better world. Dysfunctional and self-serving congregations are a travesty. With all that is going on around us — financial distress, ethical collapse, warfare, injustice, environmental decay — this should be religion’s hour. But if we are going to serve, we need to learn from Don Berger: be present, be friendly, respect the customer, and put out a quality product at reasonable prices.
In the Christian world, too many churches have closed doors — some literally closed between Monday and Saturday because that’s all they can afford, and some figuratively closed with their unwelcoming attitudes.
What use is a closed church? Let someone else use the prominent street corner. Too many church “proprietors” hide from their customers. Jesus sent us out to the places where people live. He didn’t call us to attend meetings, to work on our sermons in solitude, or to be so busy preparing for worship that we cannot greet those arriving for worship. Go to people’s homes, he said. Proclaim God’s good news. Touch people. Let them touch you.
Our constituents aren’t commodities; they are God’s beloved. They have names, stories, needs, interests, and skills. They deserve our best, which means ourselves and our faith.
Our churches aren’t concert halls, lecture halls, or clubhouses. They are kitchens.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant, and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the founder of the Church Wellness Project, www.churchwellness.com, and author of the Church Wellness commentary in the Outlook.