For the last 2.5 years we opened our doors on a Monday evening for friends, neighbors and strangers to come eat with us. No grand, mechanistic plan, we just wanted to know people. We were also looking for a way to live our faith — the love and welcome of Jesus — in a concrete way. Simple idea, really. Simple, yet it has been a powerful experience for myself and others, more powerful than I can probably articulate. Hundreds of beautiful people have come through our doors, all changing us in one way or another.
I am left pondering the many unpredictable moments of beauty. Like the time I met a person in a coffee shop that had just moved to the city, invited her for dinner, and in two months she will be baptized and confirmed. Or like two weeks ago when I was riding in a cab and the taxi driver looked at me and said, “Ive been to your house for dinner. I was homeless then, but have got me-self on me feet now.” (Said in a beautiful Scouse accent). Or the time we provided halal BBQ food (thanks, Joe), and one gentleman as he was leaving hugged me, looked into my eyes and in a heartfelt way said, “Thank you for making food I can eat, and for your generous welcome.” Or the time that I watched my ten-year old son host a man from a local hostel by playing video games; they laughed and trash talked each other for over an hour; I could tell the man hadn’t had this experience of family in a while.
There are too many experiences to recount in a simple blog post, really.
I’ve learned some things over the last 2.5 years; things I won’t easily forget; things that have changed the future shape of my ministry. At the risk of over simplifying, here are a few:
I’ve learned that the table is a powerful symbol of a world put right. At the table you look people in the eyes. The surface of the table is level. It creates an environment whereby you reach your hands into the same pot, take from the same food, to sustain your lives in the same way. It’s a levelling act. You have come in need of the same thing, and you get that need met by performing the same actions at the same time. All while facing each other, in the flesh; skin and bones – real humans on real journeys.
Over the last 2.5 years the rich and poor, educated and non, young and old, highborn and low born have performed this common, levelling, act together. When the host has prepared the food, everyone receives as a guest, regardless of what one’s status is on the way in the door — we are all guests around the table. I often watched as people who would never connect in a hierarchical world spoke to each other, came to appreciate each other, and often became friends.
During one event at Christmas a man whose life has in many ways been destroyed by alcohol and hard living jumped on our piano after dinner. He began playing songs and those present tried singing along with him. He was entertaining, giving, providing joy for other folks very unlike him.
The sweetest moment happened when a friend, an accomplished musician who plays for the philharmonic orchestra, grabbed her viola and began to play along with him. The sound of these two instruments — from two very different people — was more to me than just a nice melody; it was the sound of community — a place where people of difference forgot their status and found harmony that went beyond music.
The Table is level. It can be a symbol of the world put right.
I’ve also learned that people often carry burdens that in the normal course of life there is no place to share. There are very few safe places to admit frailty. The number of people who came for weeks and then, maybe realising that this table was about more than food, that it was about family, shared the personal details of their lives and in the course of doing so were able to receive prayer and support from those who shared the space with them. It wasn’t a scripted counselling session, it wasn’t a therapists session, it was a community of friends who began to trust each other enough to ask for help in carrying their burdens. I didn’t plan this, but it happened all the time, especially if the person repeatedly came. Conversations that began at the table, often finished with quiet prayers, for issues I didn’t always know — but the context of food and friendship somehow created the context of burden sharing. So deeply beautiful.
The table also became a place of possibility. I can’t count the number of times that people would meet around the table and begin talking about what they wanted to do to make a difference in the world. Little projects became reality outside the table. A group of people decides to read a spiritual book together; another group decides to pursue a creative social justice knitting project; others spontaneously talking to each other about how they can help a mutual friend get through a tough time. The organic connection in the context of the meal, with no foreordained plan, resulted in countless good deeds done by friends. I couldn’t script this.
I was also continually surprised at the number of people who suggested they had no faith, but eventually prayed prayers at the table. We didn’t pray every week. Sometimes we were aware that there were some people in attendance that would feel deeply uncomfortable with such an activity, so we respected that. But often if we felt it was respectful and right, we would light the candles at the end of dinner and pray compline. It was always a surprise for me when someone who did not self identify as ‘religious’ broke out in a prayer about something deeply troubling them. For some, the table became a place of ‘first reaches heavenward’. I will always treasure these moments in my heart. I consider it a privilege to have been present.
The last thing I will say (I could go on forever), is that I am amazed at what impact small communities of people can have with little resource. On average there are six adults and three children living in our house (plus a deeply committed person who lived outside of the house). Nine (or ten) of us. A small group. None of us rich, none of us very important.
But over the last 2.5 years we had hundreds of people through our doors. We’ve had people that would never have darkened the door of a church unless someone died or was getting married. And I dare to say, even though I could not have planned it, that some have come and gone, not just with full bellies, but with the sweet taste of Jesus in their mouths; even if they may not have articulated it in such words.
While this journey has taken effort, opening the table to people is something we can all do; it’s not an elite ministry, it’s not a fenced-off-secret-strategy for those ‘in the know’ — its as natural as breathing, and I would dare to say, as necessary as breathing.