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As I thread the needle of the building’s overhang in our borrowed fifteen-turned-twelve passenger van for the third time that evening, I listen attentively to a few trusted voices in the back reporting on the location of the overhang and the tree branches. In every vanload of people I bring to the meal, there are always a few who want to help navigate this part and usually one or two who provide genuine assistance and not just a confident “you’re good.”
“Thanks, yall,” I call back as I bring the van to a stop in front of the double doors that lead to the fellowship hall of Ascension Lutheran Church. “I’ll go park and be in in just a minute.” As folks climb out of the van, the first couple people turn back and hold out a hand for some of our less steady sisters and brothers. One person hurries around to help Ms. Dorothea out of the front seat where those who have the most mobility challenges usually sit since it’s easier to get in and out there. Everybody will make it to the meal on time tonight with the help of each other.
Moments later, I’m parked and locking up. Tracing my hand along the blue, vinyl lettering on the side of the van that reads “First Baptist Church,” I give thanks that they’ll let us borrow their big van for the meals. I’ve tried to do our dozens of rides with minivans and cars before, but it’s quite the task. When I get to the church building, I go through the back door directly into the kitchen. Kenneth is busy carving pork loin with his electric knife and Kush is checking on the mashed potatoes we named after her when she taught us the recipe. “Oh man, Saint Barbara’s mashed potatoes!” I call out almost reflexively, “I’m looking forward to what I’m smelling.”
I’m at the “big meal” that our community, Grace and Main Fellowship, helps to make happen every fourth Thursday of the month. Uninterested in inaccurate labels like “feeding program” or “free meal,” I tell people that we’re a family meal with people you might not yet know are your family. At this shared meal, everybody will serve themselves from a common table and everybody learns to share life by passing the salt and pitching in to clean up spills. We don’t eat what’s quick or easy, but what’s delicious and lovingly prepared. Some show up to the meal because it’s the end of the month and money is tight, but most come to share the space and be with their friends and family. At the very start of the meal, we offer communion because we believe that this meal is ultimately Jesus’ meal and these tables are, for a night at the very least, Jesus’ tables. We stress that nobody has to participate, of course, but that everyone is welcome to do so.
As I follow my nose through the kitchen, York is checking the bread we’ll use for communion and pointing out to someone nearby that it was young Madison who cut a Roman cross into it instead of the usual Greek cross that York uses. “She’s our youngest helper,” York explains, “and she’s Roman Catholic so we want her to know she’s included even if she can’t stay for the meal tonight.”
“Five minutes,” Kenneth calls out to me as I head into the fellowship hall to check in with folks. Luke is already at the table with the ice and a big, orange drink cooler. Nobody is totally sure when Luke took up the drink table as his fourth-Thursday-vocation but he’s done it faithfully for years and we miss him when he’s not there. Even though Luke rides on the first van trip to get to the meal, this is just as much as his meal as it is mine or Kenneth’s. Offering a quick fist bump to Luke, I make eye contact with Cynthia across the hall who nods at me as if she knows that I’m checking through a mental checklist that reads “is Cynthia here?” She is—check. Cynthia will get a ride home with me and will bring multiple leftover trays to share with her neighbors who don’t yet have the courage to show up to the meal but who will certainly appreciate the food.
The big salad at the end of one table and the full bowls of fruit testify that members of West Main Baptist are already here. A quick scan of the room confirms the bananas’ story when I see some of the West Main folks checking in on people they’ve met before while making new friends of others. After showing up regularly for a couple years, they’re starting to fit in well at the tables even if they might not always believe me when I say it. At one table, someone is checking in with Edward whose leg has been hurting him. When Edward catches my eye, I know that he’ll find me later to make sure I’m up to date on prayer requests. Through the week, Edward catches up around the neighborhood and gathers prayer requests like a squirrel gathers acorns. Nearby, Carla sits quietly but I know that all week she’s been reminding her neighbors and anyone who will listen that the meal is on Thursday night – I know this because most of them showed up.
As kids play a game that amounts mostly to chasing each other, I start to formulate what I’ll say in just a couple minutes when I have the chance to welcome everyone to this meal that is already theirs. The many people gathered don’t need me to tell them that this place and these people are theirs, because the regulars already know it. But there are probably some here for whom this is a first or second visit and who don’t yet know that it’s all theirs—so I’ll do it anyway. I’ll say this is their place until they begin to believe it.
As Kenneth quickly scans the table full of food to make sure it’s all there, I check in with him to make sure nothing has changed in the plan. “Same as usual?” I ask as Cynthia steps up and takes her spot next to us. In a few moments, she’ll direct the traffic as people come to fill their plates. Everyone will listen to her, not because she has some particular power or authority but because the bonds of community are strong.
Nodding, Kenneth replies, “whenever you’re ready.” Pausing for a moment longer, I reflect that what I’d like to say in my loudest voice is that this meal is a phenomenon that only seems simple because nobody scrutinizes it for too long. People show up, and help others to show up, largely because this meal is unlike any other. This meal happens because of all the different individuals giving generously of their time and attention. It’s not an act of charity, but it is certainly an act of love – mutual and reciprocal love. There’s no power to be had in a meal like this and all that will be left as evidence of it in two hours are leftovers in a few dozen refrigerators and maybe a couple of shirts with ranch dressing stains. After all these years, we don’t even have to tell anyone that there will be plenty and not to take too much. You can’t take too much of what is already yours and this meal—this wild assortment of beautiful people—is everybody’s.
Of course, if I tried to say all that, people would nod along but they’d wonder if the meat was getting cold. So, instead, I wander into the middle of the crowd to start my introduction and say in my loudest voice, “Hey everybody! I’m so glad you’re here.” And I am, because they are.
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