When I was 14 years old, I began working at the Dunkin’ Donuts down the road. I then flipped over to Burger King to work with my older brother. At 16, I left the burger world to run the drive-through at KCF/Taco Bell for a couple more dollars an hour. So when I needed a part-time gig as an adult, Starbucks felt like an upgrade. At least there I didn’t have to wear a stupid uniform or smell like freezer-burnt onion rings. And the health insurance was a nice perk.

The job was about what you’d expect: lots of Frappuccinos, painfully precise (read: demanding) customers, and a fast-paced environment. To be honest, it was kind of fun. But the lasting memories of my time there have little to do with pumpkin spiced lattes or the mysteries of the secret menu, and more with the stories of my coworkers.

I quickly came to discover that many had what I call a “Starbucks story,” or the course of events in one’s life that leads you to don a green apron with an embroidered mermaid. Working as a barista was not merely a job, but a lifeline. For Sarah, it was her ticket out of a life-threateningly abusive relationship. Under the cover of a Starbucks run, she met with a social worker to plot her escape and future employment at this safe space. John never finished high school, and the business of caffeine distribution was the only alternative to dealing drugs. For Sheryl, Starbucks was where she turned to overcome her drug addiction. Others found themselves brewing coffee after failed business ventures and failed marriages. The details differed, but the narratives were similar enough.

While it wasn’t anyone’s dream job, Starbucks was the miraculous safety net that stopped a freefall and provided stability. Alternatives to gainful employment are sometimes so disastrous that a job can be a kind of salvation, just as an invitation to harvest grapes at the eleventh hour is a picture of grace (Mt 20:1-16). The work may not be rewarding, but its benefits far outweigh the costs of unemployment. It’s easy to equate one’s job with something like a divine calling when its blessings surpass mere subsistence, but perhaps subsistence is what work is meant to provide.

The stories of my coworkers are not necessarily unique by a long shot. If they are remarkable at all it is for their honesty. Most people shroud their personal histories of freefall with understatement and ambiguity. The wife who left has gone on an “extended vacation.” The house was sold because it was “too big.” The sudden career change is usually given a positive spin: “he left to spend more time with his family,” or more simply, “it wasn’t a good fit for me”.

Hiding from judgment in the bushes is usually preferable to the shame of being known; or rather, we want to be known, but fear the risk of confession. So the freefalls we regret or feel embarrassed by are usually deleted from retellings, though they never really vanish. If you tell a lie long enough, it can begin to feel like a memory, though the truth has a funny way of persisting against our best wishes.

Most everyone has their own version of a Starbucks story that doesn’t grace their social media pages. It might not be as dramatic as a drug addiction, divorce, or a jail sentence, but at the time it felt just as distressing. As much as we might try to pretend otherwise, life is a fraught and precarious endeavor, something we are all too keenly aware of these day. The pandemic has cut away the safety nets of so many people: jobs are disrupted or gone, friends are out of reach, family is distant, and the church is, well, doing the best it can.

Jacob Smith is fond of saying that all of us are three days away from becoming a tabloid headline. And most of us are on day two. If that sounds a touch too dramatic, then praise God. But one can only narrowly avoid catastrophe for so long before the law of averages settles the scorecard.

The thing that stops a freefall likely isn’t going to be a part-time job pouring hot water over roasted seeds, but it’ll be just as meaningful. Like a barista gig, it’s likely to be something small — even unnoticed by the giver — a prayer offered at an opportune time, a simple note of encouragement, a couch to sleep on, or a listening ear.

Like seeds planted in the ground, that which sparks hope comes to us slant-wise, bearing little resemblance to the sprouts and branches that burst from a renewed heart. By virtue of their smallness, these “divine setup” moments catch us off guard, able to bypass our expectations to create something new altogether.

Hope isn’t exactly on everyone’s mind right now, and understandably so. As our stability and sense of normalcy crumbles, the feeling of freefall remains an uninvited guest. The miracle we need might be grand, but it will probably come from a place we aren’t expecting. The Holy Spirit is unpredictable in that way. Miracles are elusive, perhaps frustratingly so, but their elusiveness is also the source of their power. The turning points of our lives are not engineered by willpower or the best of plans. They might appear unassuming at the time, but can move mountains over the long run.