Thursday, November 23, 2017

Season for Staying Alive: Starbucks’ Christmas Blend

I debated whether or not I should buy Starbucks’ instant coffee Via in the new Christmas Blend. It was in November seven years ago that my father died after weeks of incapacitation from the effects of chemotherapy for his colon cancer. But while he was in the intensive care unit and too weakened to walk again after five months of chemo, here I am done with my six chemo rounds and still able to get on my (swollen and numb) feet despite all the lingering side effects (nausea, malfunctioning taste buds, low energy etc.). So since it looked like I’ll be around to enjoy the Christmas Blend at least until my surgery in December, in a leap of optimism I bought the 12-pack of granulated coffee.

The Starbucks store near the temple was the scene of a shooting on November 2nd that resulted in one person killed and two injured. The alderman went overboard speaking on the local news in blaming the store for allowing drug dealing on its premises and declaring he would have the store closed. From what I’ve read from customers and the store itself, there was no drug dealing going on in the store then or before. The shooting happened in the store because the deceased person ran in there to get away from the shooter after a deal had gone bad a couple blocks away.

In addition to my self-interest in wanting the coffee shop near my workplace, I didn’t want the store closed knowing it was also served as a place for the disadvantaged to rest a while, away from the weather. I saw the counter people readily gave a cup of ice water to anyone who asked for it so that even the destitute folks could sit and sip from a Starbucks cup like the paying customers. It seemed to be a place where I saw a lot of consultations going on – people needing help meeting with social workers, guidance counselors, ministers et al. Also because the store is in the same building as the Asian Human Services office, there are many customers with Asian faces, speaking a variety of languages.

Along with over 1,300 others, I signed an online petition protesting the alderman’s threats to close the store. It was heartening to hear that the Starbucks CEO came to the store a couple days ago to show his support of the employees and their work.

People may deride Starbucks as just another heartless corporation and the wellness gurus disparage it as another “weapon of mass destruction” along with Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds for its unhealthy beverage and food offerings. But as strange as it may sound to some ideological purists, I think the Starbucks store in Uptown offers a model of community openness that our temple should emulate. Like Starbucks our temple is part of a conglomerate (the “organized religion” sector shunned by the spiritual “nones”) and we hawk products for income (memorial services for Asians wanting to honor ancestors and comforting chanting and meditation for people running from unhappy experiences in institutions with strict requirements). But we should welcome those who don’t have money to give and let them find a refuge for a while from the harsh elements outside (such as the recent shootings, harassment from the police, disrespectful treatment by those who parcel out substandard jobs and housing etc.). And as the Starbucks in Uptown seemed to be a meeting place for people to connect with needed services, material and emotional, the temple should be a place for forming relationships that lead people to helping each other.

But what about hearing the Dharma – isn’t that what the temple is for, a bigger priority than serving weak tea to socialize over? The way I see it, it is for me to focus on hearing the Dharma, at the temple and elsewhere – not for me to force others to hear it. All I can do (barely these days) is share a bit of the Dharma lessons I’m struggling with in my Sunday service talks and monthly bulletin articles. Due to my condition, I’ve given up on the weekly study class and the Buddhism introduction course, so the monthly sutra study class is my only opportunity to read the Buddha’s words with others and share questions and comments. As we read in our last class, the Buddha reminds us to live in the richness of the present and not in the imagined future or over-and-done-with past. Namu to the dark roast Christmas Blend though it may be the result of people’s pain in the past (bad corporate treatment of farmers and store workers) and the cause of my worsened health in the future.

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