Of fear and love

I’ve been a Starbucks customer for quite a long time. I’m not one of the people who go to Starbucks every day, but over the year’s I’ve spent a considerable amount of money in their stores. I’ve been to the original Starbucks near Pike Place Market in Seattle and before the franchises spread to towns where I lived, I would seek out a Starbucks when traveling. These days I no longer drink caffeinated beverages, so it is easier for me to make the things I like to drink at home, but I will still meet church member at Starbucks for conversation, or go out with my kids when we are visiting.

You wouldn’t need to be a Starbucks customer, however, to be aware that they are closing all of their stores for diversity and unconscious bias training. It is part of the chain’s response to an incident in Philadelphia where two black men were arrested for sitting in a Starbucks while waiting for another man. The staff of the store clearly over-reacted to the incident and called the police when the men did not make a purchase. After the video of the arrest went viral, the chain reacted. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson went to Philadelphia to apologize to the men. He also announced that more than 8,000 Starbucks stores in the U.S. would close on the afternoon of May 29 so that nearly 175,000 employees can be trained.

I applaud the desire of the chain to eliminate bias from its stores. I think that the trainings are a good first step. But discovering and overcoming biases is more than a 2 1/2 hour class.We have been working for all of my active career to overcome bias and invite diversity in the church. We are far from perfect. We still have a long ways to go. And so does Starbucks. I worry that a one-time response to a systematic problem will be more of a publicity stunt than a long-term solution.

At least Starbucks is making a concerted effort. They have hired consultants and devised a plan. That is more than can be said for a lot of other corporations in America, where bias figures into the actions of their employees every day.

Law enforcement agencies have regular and recurrent bias and diversity training for their employees. They invest a lot in training their officers to not allow their biases to govern their decisions. Still examples of officer bias abound. And some of those interactions are fatal.

What Starbucks will discover, if they don’t already know it, is that it is very difficult to teach people not to be afraid. Part of what is going on in our society is a failure of courage. People become afraid even when no danger exists. It is hard to train a person to accurately assess risk and danger. It is even harder to train a person to behave with courage in the face of their fear.

What happened in Philadelphia was that the employee became afraid. The fear may have come from biases that the employee had. But somewhere in that person’s upbringing and life experiences, that person had learned to be afraid of black men. And so a threat was perceived even when no danger existed. It is the fear that is difficult to control.

Even highly trained and experienced law enforcement officers are subject to fear. They are not emotionless automatons. They are complex human beings. For some time weapons training in law enforcement agencies focused on accurate and correct handling of weapons. Weapons safety and accuracy were emphasized. Training was often adapted from military training, where soldiers are taught to handle their weapons safely and use them effectively. They are also taught to use them decisively and quickly. What military and law enforcement trainers know is that it is relatively easy to train people to use weapons effectively. What is much more difficult is to train them when not to use their weapons. Friendly fire and civilian casualties are part of the cost of war. Although such incidents are rare, law enforcement officers do, on occasion use their weapons inappropriately. That is why every discharge of a weapon in a law enforcement setting is carefully investigated and reviewed.

Businesses focus on training employees in customer service, in doing the tasks of their jobs and eliminating expensive waste. A Starbucks employee needs to know how to operate a computer-based cash register, handle transactions, make a variety of espresso and cold drinks, warm and serve food and do it all at a very fast pace with a minimum of waste. They are also trained in how to greet and make small talk with customers and how to be aware of the people who come into the store. It will be a challenge for the large organization to also train them to be aware of their own biases and to respond appropriately to each customer.

The problem goes beyond organizational logistics and employee training. At least from my perspective, the problem is religious. What our faith teaches us is that the answer to fear is not bravado, but rather love. 1 John 4:18 states, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.”

Starbucks, or any other business, cannot teach love. Love is not a set of behaviors that can be conditioned. You learn love by being loved. We know this because the church has been trying to teach faith, hope and love for millennia, and we know that there is sufficient fear within our institution. Churches often behave with biases, and fail to practice the faith that we proclaim. One of the most common reasons that I hear for people not being involved in church are experiences with congregations that fail to practice what they preach.

Ours is a crisis of faith. And closing 8,000 stores for a couple of hours of training won’t address the problem. It won’t hurt, however. Now we all need to commit ourselves to reaching out to others and confronting our fears with love.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!