Compassion costs

A large hospital in my home city was founded by the Order of the Sisters of Mercy (OSM)*. In the basement of this hospital there is a McDonald’s Restaurant – which is entirely appropriate, given the hospital’s history of fixing clogged arteries. (I’ve always been comforted knowing that when I’m sitting there scarfing that Big Mac and my pumper finally explodes, it’s only a short code-blue gurney-roll up to the emergency surgery suite.)

Now there are plans by the McDonald’s chain to add another restaurant just a couple blocks from the hospital and instead of fearing the competition, management of the hospital franchise is cheering.

Why? According to our local alternative newspaper (our best effort at creating a “no-spin zone”), it’s because they’re tired of the homeless buying one cup of coffee and then hanging around for hours on end, and they’re eagerly awaiting this consumer group’s exodus to new and shinier golden arches.

Now let me be the first admit that when I see this phenomenon at work in the fast-food place near my downtown office (er… cubicle…), I do wonder what the compassionate, yet business-like response should be. (Surely there’s a happy medium somewhere…?) Still, I can’t say I’m surprised by this blatant admission that the homeless and their single cups of joe are on the sisters’ collective last nerve. Not surprised for a couple reasons.

First, it’s considered a brilliant strategic business move to gleefully shunt your least profitable customers off onto your competition. For that reason, my advice to the homeless is simple: if you want McDonald’s to love you, buy a Coke instead of a coffee. I once remarked to a Hardee’s manager that he was such a sport for giving away his largest-size cups to some classic car enthusiasts, inviting them to fill their cups with soda free of charge, including endless refills. His response? “Hell it’s no big deal, it only costs me 13 cents to fill that cup with pop.” Let’s see, I thought, he charges $1.49 over-the-counter for that size of drink, yet it costs him only 13 cents… well I’m no good at math, and I don’t know his cost to supply coffee, but if the profit margin is higher on pop than it is on java, couldn’t the homeless buy themselves some slack just by switching beverages?

Second, my experience with the Catholic Church has shown that there is apparently a fixed price for grace, although they won’t say exactly what that price is. One Sunday, at a period in my life when my father was out of work and my mother was supporting our family of five, I dutifully attended church and put our tithe envelope containing $5 into the collection basket. During the sermon, I swear to God these were the priest’s words: “If you are a family of five and you aren’t giving more than $5 a week to the church, you aren’t giving your fair share and you can’t expect to receive church services such as marriages and funerals.”

Well this pretty much pissed me off to the point where I stopped going to church altogether; I couldn’t fathom the sheer audacity of stating that the size of your tithe was tied to the size of your family and that your ability to contribute could determine whether the church would bless your burial.

So, given what I came to call the church’s money-grubbing nature, it’s no surprise at all that the homeless aren’t welcome in the OSM McDonald’s – if there’s a price for grace, it’s a short leap to think that there might also be a price for compassion. Apparently, it’s more than the price of coffee.

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on my first blog, “A Blogger Looks at Forty.” The two McDonalds restaurants have been happily co-existing now for several years. They are sharing the homeless.

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