In every religious sanctuary, there are people who believe they've staked out pews as their very own.
The same thing happens at Waffle House, those very-Southern, 24-hour-a-day diners in 25 American states. Many of the patrons claim their own territory day after day, week after week.
The Rev. Gary Liederbach is a Waffle House regular in Madison, Ala., where he leads the One Direction Community, a circle of house churches, community meals and kid's groups targeting people who may not feel comfortable in regular churches. He's an ordained United Methodist minister, but doesn't wear that on his sleeve when using the Waffle House as his unofficial office.
One recent morning, Liederbach sat down at the diner's middle bar, where the line of side-by-side chairs almost requires diners to chat with waitresses and each other. He didn't see the empty coffee cup of a rough, 50-something regular that, as a matter of pastoral discretion, he called "Chuck."
When Chuck came back inside from smoking a cigarette, he lit into Liederbach with a loud f-bomb, blasting him for taking his seat.
"The two waitresses who were standing there almost jumped over the bar and verbally attacked Chuck," wrote the pastor, in an online reflection. "One said, 'Now you listen here you mother f***er, this man here is a f***ing man of God and if you ever talk to him like that again I will kick your f***ing @ss!' " Another added: "He's my f***ing pastor! … Show some f***ing respect!"
The waitresses exchanged high fives and one shouted an image -- sort of -- from a recent Bible lesson with Liederbach: "Sword of the spirit, b*tch!"
Chuck walked out.
Perhaps, the pastor thought, the waitresses needed deeper insights on St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, which urges believers to "put on the full armor of God," while taking up the "sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."
Welcome to territory rarely visited by clergy, but prominent in surveys like the Pew Forum's "Religious Landscape Study." In terms of education, 41 percent of "high school or less" Americans said they "seldom" or "never" attend worship services and 48 percent said, "don't know." Also, 61 percent of those making $30,000 a year or less answered, "don't know," with 35 percent saying "seldom/never."
Waffle House is a great place to listen to blue-collar people, said Liederbach. He recommends the bar, which means sitting elbow-to-elbow. That's where "you're gonna get pushed to talk about real stuff," he said. Folks in booths usually want to be left alone.
Still, he said, lots of people are listening and paying attention.
"You have to just hang out at first, without saying much. … After a year or so, you're real. You're part of the crowd," he said. "But you hear everything at the Waffle House. That's where the stories are. … You hear people asking, 'What's going on? What's your story?' You see who tips the waitress an extra $10 if they know her family is struggling."
Waving the "pastor" flag early on just "makes everybody put out their cigarettes and start talking funny." The cuss words vanish and people in the parking lot hide their beers.
A few weeks after the blow-up, "Chuck" -- smoking in the parking lot -- quietly requested prayer because of a prostate cancer test. Then he started talking about Vietnam and his nightmares about killing enemy soldiers, including children and the elderly. After the war he stopped going to church, sure that God could never forgive him.
Soon after that, Chuck's son was killed, accidentally shot in the head while handling a handgun he thought wasn't loaded. The son died a few hours later.
With this wave of grief, said the weeping father, his Vietnam nightmares returned with a vengeance. Was this God's judgment?
The family has no pastor and cannot afford a funeral. Would Liederbach come to the house and say a few words over the body of his dead son?
Lots of Waffle House regulars have "real religious questions and real needs. But they're terrified of being judged," said Liederbach. "Their lives are often pretty unstable. They lose jobs a lot and their families get pretty messed up. … It took me a long time to realize that the Waffle House is their church."