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Power of Tea

May 11, 2017

Tea at Three Flyers 2016It began with one teapot, six cups, and a single bag of cookies. I put up flyers around campus. I had no idea who might come. We only had six chairs, so it would be cozy. Sometimes one person came and stayed a few minutes. Sometimes five people came and stayed the entire hour. Sometimes, I mostly sat by myself, sipped tea, and read a book.

Slowly, slowly, like the steam wafting leisurely from a cup of hot tea, word began to spread. I added a second teapot and more cups. We moved to a larger venue, one with about ten chairs. The snacks diversified to include fruit strips, little chocolates, mixed nuts. I got a packet of to-go cups for those who were just passing through but could still benefit from a cup of tea.

People began donating tea, mostly through the time honored practice of re-gifting. Variety packs and beautiful tins of loose leaf tea would show up at my office door, with lovely Chinese lettering on them (which I cannot not read). Frequently they appeared just after Christmas or Chinese New Year or someone’s business trip abroad. Many times I brewed ‘mystery’ tea and was never disappointed.

We moved to another venue, slightly larger. A small fundraiser enabled the purchase of a cart to carry all the tea things and snacks. I gained a student assistant and didn’t feel a single drop of guilt (well, maybe one) for tasking her with washing up. Rewarded with tea every week, she never complained. As she prepares to graduate this weekend, she told me that hosting tea was the favorite part of her work each week.

Tea at Three has become a venerable institution. It is the only event related to my work as a Campus Chaplain that has endured these past four years. I tried leading meditation. A few people came, then no one at all for several weeks, then I gave up. I tried leading process groups for chaplains and grad students to talk about their stresses and support one another. They were problematic. I’ve held events and hosted speakers to mixed results. But tea, ah tea, is something students ask about.

“What day are you hosting tea this semester?” they want to know when we pass in the hall. “Same place?”

“Can I bring a pie next week? I’m baking this weekend,” they offer.

“Can I show folks how to prepare tea the traditional Chinese way?” and they bring their own beautiful teapots and cups.

“I don’t like tea,” she says, but she comes every week, buys a soda from the vending machine, eats the cookies, and stays the entire hour.

Students, faculty, and staff are all welcome. There are many regulars, some who stop by occasionally, and a few who pause in surprise.

“I didn’t know you did this,” they say and accept a cup of tea.

“Yup. Every week for three years now. I’m glad you found us. Have a cookie.”

We held our final Tea at Three of the school year this week. It was a special event. A colleague unveiled the woven art project students and staff created together earlier in the spring. We had flowers and tiny vegan chocolate cupcakes and iced fruit tea. The couches overflowed and people pulled up chairs from elsewhere or just sat on the floor. I passed out tea and then sat down with a pair of knitting needles and a ball of yarn. People came over to watch me knit and two young women, one from Sri Lanka and one from Nepal, gave it a try. Folks wandered in and out. Students voluntarily served tea and refilled teapots at need. Conversation drifted from topic to topic.

“Are you reading the New York Times or the LA Times?” I asked a student with a newspaper and we began a conversation about politics and his recent trip to visit prison inmates with a professor.

“When will you get your black belt?” I asked the young woman who doesn’t drink tea as we talked about the people at her dojo.

“How’d that stats test work out?” I directed towards a small group of students who had lamented the difficulty of their final exam at last week’s tea. A repeat of complaints against the professor ensued.

“I got a new tattoo! Do you want to see?” has been heard more than once at our little tea party.

“Oh, it’s three o’clock,” harried staff exclaim as they pass our little group. “I guess I can sit for a few minutes,” then they stay for half an hour.

The thing about tea is that there is no other agenda, no assigned topic, no target group. Sometimes we spend the entire hour talking about memes and television. Sometimes we talk about suicide and childhood trauma. Sometimes we talk about both on the same day. I make an effort to check in with each student and staff person, but there are also times I just sit back and listen as they build connections with each other. Such a simple thing, but we all immediately know what to do when sitting around sharing tea. It’s a human thing thousands of years old.

In technical terms, this is ministry of presence. I rarely think of it that way, though. Mostly it’s just tea. Many cultures still use tea medicinally. Some herbs do affect the body, but mostly I believe the medicine of tea is in the human connections it fosters. Recent research has shown that patients who spend just ten more minutes talking with their palliative care doctors each week report less pain and need fewer medications than those who are denied that human connection. Tea is powerful because it is a focal point for building those connections.

Once in a while, someone who has been to tea will show up at my office door. “Can we talk?” they ask. Their expression tells me they need more than tea and cookies. But because of tea, they know I’ll listen.

This week was the last Tea at Three for the year, but not the last Tea at Three. Commencement is on Saturday. Next week, I’ll offer a travelling tea with my little cart coming around to the offices, a little relief for faculty and staff at the end of a busy semester. Travelling tea will continue each month throughout the summer. Tea at Three will return for fall semester. I look forward to sharing a cup with you.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Peace Paul permalink
    May 19, 2017 10:51 pm

    Very Inspiring. Thank you.

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