The Power of Toast

Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 14 June 2014

Toast.  
It’s become really hip in San Francisco -- and it’s sure to make its way to Montreal someday soon.  Not just any kind of toast, but perfect toast, buttered with the Zen-like focus of a master chef preparing sushi.  You can now find toast bars and toast menus all over the city of the Golden Gate Bridge.  You can find the quintessential toast experience for the astounding sum of $4 a slice.  When journalist John Gravois encountered his first slice of trendy toast, he couldn’t help but wonder where this movement had begun.

Why toast?

People told him go to The Mill, the hippest toast bar in town.  But the baker at The Mill and every other toast trendsetter in the city sent him to an out-of-the-way coffee shop in one of the city’s “windiest, foggiest and farthest flung areas,” to a café called “Trouble”.  The full name of the place:  Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club, run by an unusual 34-year old woman named Giulietta Carelli.

You may have already heard a bit of this story, especially if you got to hear keynote speaker Meg Riley at the Canadian Unitarian Council’s conference last month (the famous CUC-ACM we hosted here in Montreal).   I have to say a few words about Meg, before I go back to talking about toast.  Meg is the senior minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which began many, many years ago as a congregation without walls for Unitarians and Universalists who lived too far away to attend a church on Sunday.  In the old days, the Church of the Larger Fellowship did everything by mail.  Today, it has grown into a virtual community that hosts online worship services, workshops, forums and quiet, anonymous places for people to post their joys and concerns.

I’d seen Meg lead a high-tech workshop in New York City in January for an international gathering of Unitarians and Universalists.  She led us through a web broadcast of a worship service.  She gave us statistics about the rising number of young people who are being labelled the “nones” these days, as in people who respond to the question: What religious group do you belong to?  Answer: None.  N-O-N-E ... .  These are people who are no longer physically attending church but who are, instead, seeking community online, Meg told us during that workshop.  I remember a member of our group, someone from the boomer generation and from halfway across the globe, standing up in indignation, her voice filled with anxiety and concern.  “How can you create community when you never see each other face-to-face? That’s just not church!” she said.  By the time Meg finished, many of us were feeling anxious.  What would happen to our bricks and mortar, to our precious buildings and our Sunday services?  

When Meg came to speak to the Canadian Unitarians, I expected more of the same. After all, we had invited her to talk to us about technology and the future of religious community.  But she surprised us.  Her speech was decidedly low tech.  No screens, no online connections, no videos, no social media demonstrations.  In fact, the live-streaming and video recording of her keynote address were a complete disaster.  You can find the video on the CUC website, but the quality is so poor that it’s impossible to sit through, which is truly regrettable – and yes, ironic.  There’s still value to the statement:  “You had to be there!”  

Meg didn’t really come to talk to us about technology.  She came to talk to us about the power of toast.

I first heard this toast story on the radio (This American Life: No Place Like Home, Act 3: The Hostess with the Toastess, 3/14/14).   Journalist John Gravois read excerpts from his article (actually titled “Toast Story”) that had been published in the magazine, Pacific Standard. Gravois punctuated his spoken words with commentary from a recorded interview with Giulietta Carelli, owner of Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club.  It was one of those stories that stopped me in my tracks and moved my heart – and I have been waiting for the perfect moment to share it with you. [You can find links to both the article and the radio segment at http://sprudge.com/this-american-life-toast.html ]

Giulietta Carelli is someone who has always had a hard time finding her place in life.  Her family threw her out, and her friends distanced themselves from her.  Roommate after roommate, lover after lover, and employer after employer asked her to leave.  She struggled with drug and alcohol addition as she wandered from coast to coast trying to fit in somewhere but, ever since high school, she has been struggling with schizoaffective disorder.   Still, it was only in recent years that she learned that her hallucinations and mood swings had a name.  

“The onset of a psychotic episode can shut her down with little warning for hours, days, or, in the worst instances, months. Even on good days, she struggles to maintain a sense of self; for years her main means of achieving this was to write furiously in notebooks, trying to get the essentials down on paper. When an episode comes on, she describes the experience as a kind of death: Sometimes she gets stuck hallucinating, hearing voices, unable to move or see clearly; other times she has wandered the city aimlessly. ‘Sometimes I don’t recognize myself,’ she says. ‘I get so much disorganized brain activity, I would get lost for 12 hours.’”

One day, when she was feeling especially lost, she found herself on China Beach, “a small cove west of the Golden Gate,” watching a group of Russian swimmers braving the frigid waters.  “That’s what I want to do,” she told herself.  “I was the walking dead,” she said, “and they were so alive.”   That day, on the same beach, she encountered a small, elderly man in a Speedo, sunbathing on a sunless day; a holocaust survivor named Glen.  She left California and went east, but she never forgot Glen or the swimmers.

Five years later, something told her to go back to China Beach.  She rented a car, drove across the country, and there was Glen, exactly where she’d left him. “Took you a long time to come back,” he said.  “Where’ve you been?”  At the end of their conversation that day, he said, “See you tomorrow,” and that became Giulietta’s routine.  Every day, she’d visit with Glen, she’d swim with the swimmers in the frigid waters, and Glen would say, “See you tomorrow.”  Her life began to come into focus. What did she know how to do?  What could she offer to the world?  She’d worked in enough coffee shops.  She knew how to make coffee.  She knew how to talk to people.  When her boss caught her sleeping in his café, “he told her it was probably time she opened up her own space.”

“Go get a loan,” Glen told her.  So she did.  She opened her café and she named it Trouble, because trouble was what she called the psychotic episodes she lived with.  She brewed coffee because that was the one thing she knew how to do well, and she served the essentials that had come to define her life:  Coconuts, because that had been the one food she could eat when she was suffering the most – and because people will talk to you when you are holding a coconut; grapefruit juice, because you need vitamin C if you only eat coconuts; and toast.

Carelli has a good toast story, says Gravois: “She grew up in a rough neighborhood of Cleveland in the ’80s and ’90s in a big immigrant family, her father a tailor from Italy, her mother an ex-nun. The family didn’t eat much standard American food. But cinnamon toast, made in a pinch, was the exception. ‘We never had pie,’ Carrelli says. ‘Our American comfort food was cinnamon toast.’”

Toast was something that made her feel safe.  “Nobody can be mad at toast,” she says.  

Even with the success of her café, Giulietta Carelli still has days when she gets incredibly lost. The confusion in her brain takes over and she may not be able to find her way to work.  That’s why she always wears the same clothes, and has distinctive tattoos.  Even the freckles that she had tattooed on her face are there so that she can be instantly recognizable.  That way, she says, “If I wasn’t doing well, they would remember; they’d help me get somewhere.”  

“I’m lost.  Can you help me?” she asks people.  “Hey,” they sometimes say, “You’re Trouble, right?” referring to the café.  Being recognized helps to knock her out of her confused state. That’s how she makes sure she can always find her way home. 

John Gravois says that fancy toast isn’t what this story is really about … “but it makes perfect sense that the trend began [at the Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club].  Most of us dedicate the bulk of our attention to a handful of relationships, with a significant other, children, a few friends.  Social scientists call these ‘strong ties.’  But for Guilietta those kinds of strong ties have a way of buckling under the weight of her illness, so she’s adapted by forming as many relationships, as many weak ties, as she possibly can.  And webs of weak ties are how ideas spread—ideas, in this case, like toast.”

These are the kinds of connections that Meg Riley says really count in the online world of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.  Technology is a gift that enables us to find each other, but we still need physical connection.  We have these amazing phones, tablets and computers that can keep us virtually connected to each other 24/7, yet more and more people than ever are saying that they feel lonely.  The reported rate of loneliness among adults 35 and younger is especially astounding.

Meg says that her years of building virtual communities have taught her that people don’t want to talk about their beliefs.  “Why do we struggle so much to define our centre?” she asks.  “Why not tell people, ‘Yep, we’re not so good at that.’”  People often tell her that a UU community was the first place they were ever told they were loved.  This is what we do well.  We can speak to the brokenness in people and lift up hope and transformation.  

On the website of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, people are invited to light candles of joys and concern.  It’s an anonymous place to express what weighs most heavily on people’s hearts.  They want to share their loneliness. Rather than debate belief, they ask painful questions:  Why is my husband having an affair?  Why didn’t my father love me more?  What if sharing our brokenness were a way for people to see their own light?  What if, in order to move forward, we had to lean into our failure and our brokenness?  

The number one reason that people say they feel they have failed in life is that they believe they have nothing to contribute to the world.  Think of Guilietta Carelli feeling lost for so much of her life until someone told her, “You can make coffee.  You can take the things that are most important to you and share them with other people who are as thirsty as you are for connection.”    

This year, I’ve been meeting with a small group we call the Heart-to-Heart group.  We read short chapters on specific topics like success and failure, gratitude, balance, money, forgiveness, and so on.   Some weeks the chapters are really good.  Other weeks, they’re okay.  Some of us have loved all of the topics and others have dreaded some of the topics.  But it doesn’t really matter.  Each time we meet, the conversations are rich. We are learning how to listen to each other deeply, how not to change or fix each other, but to simply be witness to each other’s reflections on life.  As I hear the members of the group speak, I’m reminded how much we each need a place where we can truly be heard and we can hear the experience of others.  Sometimes those experiences resonate with similarity to our own lives.  Sometimes we’re reminded how very different our paths can be from each other and how much we can learn from each other when we take the time to listen.  Each of us has known brokenness in our lives and each of us is on a path toward wholeness.

This is what we do so well, Meg tells us.  This is why I am looking forward to next fall when we’ll begin trying out theme-based ministry.  Each month we’ll have the opportunity to go deeper with each other.  Even if you think you don’t like the monthly themes we choose, consider joining a small group.  Take a few risks.  You might be surprised by what you find.  Sometimes the best conversations we have are about the things we think we don’t like.  By the time the conversation ends, we can find our perspectives shifting and we can find ourselves coming home to something that feels as comforting as a slice of toast made with love.

That’s the power of toast and that’s the power of community.

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