Hierarchies and Social Stratification in the JBU Cafeteria
Within a few weeks of attending Simmons cafeteria my freshman year at John Brown University, I had a crystal-clear grasp on the geography of the caf. Athletes (specifically basketball and soccer players) always take the tables near the Hydration Station. Walton students snag the two tables closest to the kitchen. Couples line the high tables along the widows, deeply engaged in “intentional conversation.” AVL takes the table near the desserts, and the business majors disperse around the middle of the cafeteria. If you eat around the same time every day, you will usually see the same groups of people sitting together in approximately the same location—Every. Single. Day. While there are some exceptions, I think we can all agree that the caf can be almost territorial. I’m guilty of table-squatting as well. In fact, since my second semester I’ve almost always sat at the same table for both lunch and dinner.
It’s not a bad thing that people often choose to sit with the same people in the same location. People are naturally drawn together because of common interests, and couples need at least a little alone time, even at JBU. What’s more concerning is the fact that approaching any table other than the one I “belong at” feels like something out of a bad dream. My palms get clammy and my stomach turns at the thought of approaching a table of people I share nothing in common with and inviting myself to join them. I may tend to be slightly more introverted than most, but I know that I’m not alone in this feeling. The idea of sitting with a different friend group or even moving with my friends to a different table feels forbidden.
Why do people choose to sit together so often and why is it taboo to “intrude upon” set boundaries in the caf? For one, I think sitting at the same place with the same people every day is easy. You know them, you love them, you have lots to talk about, and you sit together at the same place every day. The cafeteria begins to feel like a homey and comfortable part of your routine, a constant in a time period of change and upset. While this is not inherently wrong, I do think that God would desire to see Christian community as something more than warm and comfortable. He would also desire our community to be challenging, refining, and full of growth.
Additionally, negative social constructs implemented by our culture encourage a mindset that to befriend or reach out to a stranger who thinks differently from you is wrong. In our identity-driven, polarized society, disagreement entails disassociation. You only have to look at the current political atmosphere to understand how our society has become one where people bond with those who look like them and begin to view those who don’t as the “other.” I’m afraid that this negative social construct sometimes carries into the caf when people choose to commune with other people because it is easy. Making an effort to connect with people whose personality, appearance, and walk with Christ looks different from your own is never easy. But it is necessary.
Meeting people where they are at and connecting with those who are different from you is a way to demonstrate Christ-like community. Jesus made a point of interacting with those who were the most unlike him for the purpose of spreading the Good News to all the corners of the world and turning societal expectations upside-down. Strangely enough, I think the caf offers an ideal setting for practicing this Christ-like blurring of lines.