I’ve blamed McDonald’s and fellow fast food joints for enabling Americans’ worst eating habits. They help us scarf down a meal in our cars, by ourselves, and in a hurry. Their cheap, greasy food steals away poor people’s paychecks, and their glowing signs interrupt our skylines. I worry that McDonald’s triumph has led us to value expediency and efficiency over all else.
But maybe I’ve missed something major about fast-food culture.
"McDonald's: you can sneer, but it's the glue that holds communities together," declared a recent headline from The Guardian. The article featured Bible study groups, Retired Old Men Eating Out (better known as “Romeo”), African American community meetings, and other gatherings that have become staples at the Golden Arches. For socioeconomically disenfranchised individuals, McDonald’s offers a crucial refuge—not just Big Macs and fries. It’s a place for “cheap and filling food…free Wi-Fi, outlets to charge phones, and clean bathrooms.”
Rather than swiftly ushering people in and out of its doors, “McDonald’s is also generally gracious about letting people sit quietly for long periods—longer than other fast-food places," the article recounts. A restaurant founded on the value of speed has become beloved for letting people linger, without stigma and without harassment. It’s open early mornings and late evenings, and easy to find in cities and suburbs and the country.
Maybe those of us who only use the drive-thru have overlooked the importance of McDonald’s as a place, rather than just a food source. Or maybe we’ve observed a homeless person tucked in a booth with a cup of coffee without considering what makes this particular restaurant comfortable for them.
But it makes sense why McDonald’s has become a safe space for the socially disenfranchised. McDonald’s practices hospitality beyond the industry sense of the word, welcoming anyone into their dining rooms. As cities gentrify and small businesses compete, options for the poor barely budge. Many coffee shops with as power outlets and Wi-Fi expect yuppies to pay $4 for coffee. While hotels, restaurants, and others in the hospitality industry brag about their service, few can experience their welcome without disposable income. For some, the churches, restaurants, hotels, and bars we know aren’t even seen as options.
As the article noted, “They prefer McDonald’s to shelters and to non-profits, because McDonald’s are safer, provide more freedom, and most importantly, the chance to be social, restoring a small amount of normalcy.” In soup kitchens, you miss out on the details: paying for what you eat, speaking with a cashier and determining an order, getting your own soda from the drink machine, calculating the number of straws and napkins necessary for your family, staking out serious time at a table. As strange as it seems to declare McDonald’s a place for discussion, relaxation, and reflection, I remember my father used to have his Bible study and prayer “quiet time” at a fast-food joint.
Church leaders frequently charge their congregations with welcoming every person who walks through the doors, but to truly serve our communities, we must also consider the populations who aren’t even entering our doors. Perhaps the in-and-out crowd should pay attention to the places where the “least of these” linger—places like McDonald’s.
The fast-food empire could hold a lesson for churches trying to reach and serve people outside their middle-class core. Welcoming people on your own terms in a cultural or socioeconomic impact that feels uncomfortable or foreign does little to cultivate relaxation, peace, and vulnerability.
The Guardian notes the “organic” nature of McDonald’s social gatherings. Attributing the genesis of McDonald’s-based community groups to the benevolent aspirations of the company seems too far. But it’s telling just how entrepreneurial people become when provided a context that does not stigmatize them. The groups in which these individuals are not only participating—but founding—evoke vulnerability. They require individuals to articulate their fears and aspirations. And they succeed, because McDonald’s has allowed people to feel safe.
A component of this safety is physical and communicated through unrelenting fluorescent lights and durable plastic décor. But much of it is intangible, emotional relief that comes from finding a space outside of a critical, outside, patronizing gaze.
Finding relief from society’s stigma, McDonald’s patrons don’t need someone else to organize programs for them. Instead, they found and organize and build them themselves, their social networks nurtured at a place designed to put them at ease—and unwittingly strengthening our country.
A local ministry recently opened a new community center in my neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. The “FamilyPlex” includes a healthcare clinic, gym, fitness center, café, preschool, and nearly a dozen classrooms for after-school programs. But even with all those offerings, organizers knew this was not an “if we build it, they will come” scenario. They consulted with everyone from teens to gang members about their plans.
Their approach reminded me of different strategies the church can use to extend our welcome even further. Our assumptions and ideas about how to welcome our neighbors can be a starting point—but we’re able to serve more people more robustly when we hear directly from them and look at what’s going on outside of our doors, even at places like McDonald’s.