The Rapidian

Coffee Shop Conversations

How can every day coffee shop conversations be harnessed for their full democratic potential?

Today’s coffee shops serve a variety of functions: human and WiFi connections, business deals and occasionally intellectual discussions. Yet in Grand Rapids, I mostly overhear (unintentionally) customers asking about each other’s church affiliations and about controversial Scriptural interpretations.

If these were the only topics of conversation, (which they’re obviously not), we’ve come a long way from the original cafes appearing in Germany in the 19th century. They served the dual functions of providing information previously controlled by the state about their country and providing a space in which their mutual interests as citizens could be assessed. It offered the democratic potential for revealing how being a citizen entailed serving the interests of the least advantaged in their midst. Much like the agora, the public square in ancient Greece, conversations mixed sacred, profane and commercial ideas.

I’m grateful for the intellectual discussions about Scripture, given Scripture’s potential for personal and social transformation. But if their democratic potential could be tapped for solutions to our most pressing social and political problems, the sameness of the customers’ interests and ideas can be a problem. Conversations with fellow churchgoers and business associates are less likely to broach controversial issues regarding the plight of the neediest in our community, so little is risked with regard to questioning our values and beliefs. When you engage in a discussion with someone with different but significant unmet needs, you’ll walk out of the coffee shop somewhat unsettled.

In a recent New York Times article about the emerging café scene in Afghanistan where women can legally converse with men and remove their headscarves without committing a crime, Afghan women praised the liberating potential these venues offer them for expressing themselves and connecting with people outside their home life. Yet one woman who saw the potential role the cafes can play in freeing them from Taliban repression and the ongoing condition of war described her ideal café: “I wish there was a café full of male politicians who had one priority – peace.”

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