Table Setters are doing critically important yet hard work seeking to foster integration by bringing together peoples from different cultures and ethnicities to that common, universal experience of eating together at the table. Integration is, humanly speaking, hard because it creates personal anxieties, power struggles, losses, and calls forth spiritual disciplines such as surrender, openness, and trust. At the same time, it invites wonderful gains, such as joy, peace, freedom, love, laughter, understanding, and most especially belonging or community. Those of us affiliated the with PSGP pray God’s blessings upon The Table Setters and encourage them as well as our represented communities to invite their leadership and modeling of The Kingdom of God. – The Pastor as Spiritual Guide
I am who I am because of who we all are…I am because we are
I have learned much about the essence of being human through Tom Logan, co-founder of Marion Medical Mission. He and his wife, Jocelyn, have directed the Shallow Well Program for the last 25 years, helping to install about 27,000 shallow wells in Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia, Africa. Those wells have enabled three to four million villagers to have safe drinking water. Only a small number of them have ever had safe drinking water, “since the beginning of mankind,” according to one of the village elders my wife, Susie, and I met in Malawi last fall. We are proud to have assisted with 144 wells of the 2,754 installed in 2016, and we are planning to return to Africa in the future.
Notice I said “assisted.” Tom was very clear that the wells belonged to the villagers; we were only there to assist. They located the subsurface water source, dug the 15 to 25 foot well, formed and baked the clay bricks, laid the brick walls of the well, and created the concrete cap to keep the water clean and apron to drain away excess water. We Americans raised the $450 needed to pay for the cement, pipe, pump, and wages of the African field officers, well building supervisors, and installation supervisors. We Americans drove Toyota Land Rovers loaded with well parts over rough terrain to remote villages. Once there, we recorded the GPS location and construction data on an android, checked the quality and safety of the well, and celebrated the completion of the well with a dedication ceremony.
Only together, Africans and Americans, were we able to be who God created us to be. Only together did safe drinking water become available to thousands of villagers. Together, people of color and white people actualized a dream, became friends and established relationships, and served one another. Together, we sang songs and praised God for His goodness. The attached video is a gift of song to my wife and me for coming to their town in Malawi and assisting with wells. The verses are, “Who will enter into Heaven? Our father is there. Only the holy will enter. You are holy. Enter into Heaven. Our father is there.” Susie and I felt we had entered into Heaven for those moments of the song. I still tear-up when I watch that video. Gestures of love from God’s children are powerful. The people of Malawi have such open and warm hearts.
I write this story to illustrate how people who are different can effectively come together and achieve a dream. In this land the “American Dream” is at stake. The only way people of color and white people can actualize that dream is to become friends, establish relationships, and work together, as we did in Africa. The time for such an encounter is now; it is long past due. And, if we do not succeed today, what kind of world will our children and grandchildren inhabit tomorrow?
Ubuntu, I am who I am because of who we all are. Invite the Table Setters to your church, school, business, or community organization and allow them to facilitate relationship building. It’s diversity training on a personal level. Many of us know very little about people who are different. Come to the table; share at the table; stay at the table; and come back to the table. Only through relationship building can we learn who we all are and, as a consequence, learn who each one of us are. I am because we are.
It’s been 11 months since we displaced ourselves from Los Angeles to Detroit. But yesterday, I got to come back to Hollywood, thanks to an incredible exhibit called “Displacement and Gathering” at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood which featured a live artistic performance of a Table Setters gathering around a table to discuss race, politics, the idolization of all things white. We talked about what we might learn from other cultures, other perspectives, and other people with whom we might expect to disagree with, be afraid of, be opposed to meeting. We talked about why God created diversity to begin with, if it wasn’t to learn how to appreciate God’s love for beauty in variety.
Marvin’s All-American photos and videos with quotes by Frederick Douglass and Andre Henry were featured alongside original artwork by Hyung-in Kim, Maria Fee, Anne Baumgartner, Andrea Kraybill, Brian Fee. I want to let you have a glimpse of that work below.
For me, personally, I felt “gathered,” after being displaced. I was invited to play piano again during the worship service. I was invited to dinner with old friends. I got to hang out with the old team of Discerners from the Gregory avenue neighborhood, kids I knew since they were kids, and now they are all hovering around 21. It was great to be gathered back. But I also thought of how many people get displaced and are never able to return to glimpses of home. I think of Native Americans pushed off their land. I think of people living homelessly in Hollywood who get shuffled along, especially during the Oscars, every year. I think of warriors snatched out of their homelands to come build a country for white men. I think of refugees fleeing impossible situations, either economically or politically, to do right by their families, to survive.
I think of all the many people in Detroit who’ve been told their house is not worth the cost it would take to fix the roof, so they just have to slowly let the water seep in. I think of what it might mean for us to turn back that tide. I think of what it might take. I pray to God we have the strength and courage to dismantle the walls that divide us, and I think Whiteousness has always been one of the most formidable. Like the forcefield blocking entrance to the planet with all the secret codes in Rogue One…..
This week: we moved into a new house. Another displacement and re-gathering. We are trying to buy this house, but are facing challenges because, like many of our neighbors, it is not being valued as high as the seller is hoping to sell it. What is value, and who decides? The nature of this post is understandably scattered and questioning, which I think fits well alongside the artwork to follow. Let it speak to you too.
What if we could allow everyone to be considered, “white?” Of course, i think that would be a terrible idea, as whiteness is the problem. But, what if we could truly understand each person as a beloved child of God, as beautiful as God intended?
But first, listen to the incredible Diane Ujiiye deliver an opening prayer of sorts through spoken word:
Displacement and Gathering
“Remembering for Refugees” by Hyung-in Kim: the interlacing strands were produced in art workshops. In these educational venues the artist directed participants in the shared activity of braiding bands as a pedagogical tool to raise awareness of cultural diversity and to build empathy. Her project also commemorates the 25th Anniversary of the LA Riots.
“Pourous Wall” by Maria Fee: a wall is erected as a barrier: it can contain, or it can keep things at bay. Boundaries are necessary to create distinction. Yet when a wall is impenetrable, how can relationships occur between what’s inside and outside? When a wall is too high, how can the strange draw nearer to become more familiar?
“Alienation” by Brian Fee: to exist is to struggle. In attempt to elevate the self, someone else may be pushed away. This brings about a double alienation: the one who is cast off, and the offender left alone.
“Gather and Embrace” by Anne Baumgartner: welcome can function in many ways, both literal and symbolic. Through words, expressions, and physical space, God utilizes the particularity of place to gather the many in order to embrace them. How can we create room for each other and also the Holy Spirit?
“Interwoven” by Andrea Kraybill: the multi-layered bands installed above the church’s entrance, found near the intersection of two streets, further speaks of hospitality. It provides an alluring invitation for passersby to enter into a meditative space for renewal and refreshment.
Spring has arrived now.
Will we blossom once again?
Healing could happen.
I’m writing from Carmel, Indiana as we are concluding our time with leadership of The Synod of Lincoln Trails, the Presbyterians of Illinois and Indiana. It has been such an encouraging moment of togetherness, while the rest of the country is celebrating or pointing fingers over the future of healthcare. Thursday, we spent time with brave pink-skinned people in a community center of Olney, Illinois, where our new friend, Beau Brown, serves as a Presbyterian pastor. From there, we met with a slightly more diverse group (some African and Asian Americans, some with Native heritage, some with biracial children and grandchildren) of Presbyterian leaders in Carmel, Indiana, just outside Indianapolis. Our friend Beau was then installed as the new moderator for the Synod of Lincoln Trails, and he is passionate about working towards moments of racial healing from his corner of Christianity.
We talked about the pain that exists, the feelings of animosity that are deeply held, when we’ve been hurt by someone from another race. While these are personal examples, like the black bully I had in middle school (who later apologized and meant it!), they matter. Of course, my pain on this level is relative to the pain that my friends of color experience, because I only have a handful of personal pain stories. Marvin has luggage, as he calls it, involving both personal stories of being intentionally hurt, alongside the everyday ache that systemic racism causes.
And it wasn’t a time of presenting solutions. But a time to hold in each other’s pain. These steps matter, and are often overlooked to jumpstart towards solutions.
Trust is needed. And trust takes time, repeated positive experiences, to build. Then, and only then, when we know we have each other’s backs, or more pointedly, when people of color know that white people aren’t going to cut and run when the going gets tough, only then can we start to dream up anything close to solutions.
Thank you brave souls of Olney and Lincoln Trails. You have encouraged us and we hope to set more tables with you and your communities soon.
Peace by peace,
Representative Roger Marshall is facing criticism about comments he made about health care and the poor. (photo: John Hanna/AP)
Rep. Roger Marshall, (R-Kan.), a member of the GOP Doctors Caucus, said comments he made to STAT were not meant to suggest that poor people take health care for granted. The comments were published in a story last week about his burgeoning role in the fight to replace the Affordable Care Act.
“Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us,’ ” Marshall said in response to a question about Medicaid, which expanded under Obamacare to more than 30 states. “There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”
He added that “morally, spiritually, socially,” the poor, including the homeless, “just don’t want health care.” – From the Washington Post, yesterday, by Kristine Phillips.
Ah, yes. I wonder if Representative Marshall knows any poor people beyond being a doctor to some? Sounds like the lies I’ve heard all of my adult life: “the homeless just don’t want to be housed. Black people just want to live in ghettos. Latino people just don’t want to play by US rules. Prisoners re-commit crimes because they want to be back in prison. Muslims are secretly plotting to destroy all of us non-Muslims. Women actually want to be raped when they put on a slinky red dress.…”.
In addition, the AARP might have a new one to offer: “Older persons living on small fixed incomes just want to give 30-60% of that income to healthcare.”
Let me tell you about Dottie. Dottie lived in her van for the final 9 years of her life. Dottie was part of our DOOR Los Angeles program, educating people about the realities of living on the streets in Hollywood. Once, a visiting mission trip leader asked, “Dottie, why don’t you just get help and check into a shelter?” Her reply was, “At this point, I’d rather live on the streets.”
[Pause. I saw the man nodding his head because he had satisfied his assumption that “some people just aren’t going to take care of themselves.” He was able to sit comfortably “knowing” that Dottie’s situation is all her fault, that some people just don’t want to deal with responsibility, etc.]
So, I exercised my moderator privileges and asked her, “Dottie, can you explain what you mean by ‘at this point?'”
Dottie did, I’ll summarize. Dottie is a small woman who worked every day of her adult life. Dottie was a managing waitress at Denny’s in Woodland Hills, and in her late 50s, collided with another waitress in the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator, falling and breaking her hip. Dottie applied for worker’s compensation, received it, was able to get some health care for her hip but never fully healed. After 9 months of recovery, she found that Denny’s would not hire her back. She looked for work elsewhere, and learned that her worker’s comp record followed her, and that employers were “leery to hire her for fear she might pull a stunt like that again.” She said, “if I knew then what I know now, I would never have exercised that privilege, it’s ruined me.” She never fully healed, still walked with a limp, and was never able to find stable work again as a 60 year old woman. This led her into homelessness.
[Pause, again: I can attest to this reality too, mildly. We are on the verge of buying a home in Detroit and have to apply for homeowner’s insurance. Because we had luggage stolen in LA in 2016 and I had called our renter’s insurance to inquire about coverage (but did not even file a claim), that note was on our insurance record. I was told by two companies that they were unwilling to cover our home because of that theft blip. I heard that if I’m the type of person who is susceptible to theft in one residence, I’m more likely to be stolen from again. I wish I had never called to ask.]
Dottie started living in her van with her large dog Trixie. Trixie was her only true friend for years, and kept her safe when she had to panhandle at the end of the months. If she fell asleep, she felt safe by Trixie’s side. If a man came up to take advantage of her (and her stories of sexual advances are beyond the pale), Trixie growled. Trixie was her shelter. And it is important to know, then, that shelters were not accepting pets at that time. So, in Dottie’s estimation, going to a shelter meant risking separation from Trixie and in LA, with 50,000-80,000 homeless folks but only 13,000-15,000 shelter beds, there was no guarantee she was going to be taken in, and then no guarantee that if she was taken in, there would be an apartment waiting for her at the other end. What was certain, to her, was that the chance of losing Trixie was too much to bear.
And, she added, she had tried shelters for a time. She was abused by shelter staff, beat up by another woman, and was not interested in re-living anything like this.
I asked her, “if you could have a home or even your own apartment, would you prefer that to sleeping on the streets.”
Her response: “absolutely. But the hoops you have to jump through are confusing and dangerous too. I’ve come to make a life for myself. I care for the other homeless folks who live around me and that’s okay for now. I just hope, and for those of you who pray ask that you pray for me, that I don’t die alone, as I’ve seen too many of us go that way.”
Dottie did not die alone. Many of us visited her in hospice care at the end of her life. Dottie had also found a trusted partner in a man named Brian who was by her side every last moment.
Dottie was a complicated and wonderful woman. I came to learn she had also struggled with heroine throughout her life, and of course, that has bearing on this story. But should we assume that she wanted to be homeless? Should we assume that she didn’t want to be well? Should we assume that, if the path was cleared and looked safe, she would rather live the hard life she was living? Should we wonder if heroine was one of the ways she chose to cope? Should we listen to her story?
When Charlotte, our first daughter was born, Dottie bought her a piggy bank.
Do the lawmakers in charge of writing these new rules into legislation understand how hard it is to get out of the cycle of poverty once you’ve been, either, born there, or suddenly found yourself there? There are always exceptions, but there are still many more Dottie’s than the one’s who manage to eke through.
We have a national leader now who has made a career out of lying to turn business deals in his favor. He slanders people left and right to make himself look better. All the time. He lives, braggadociously I might add, by the phrase, “there’s no right or wrong in business, just good and bad business.” I am in deep despair over how many Christians idolize 45, and I pray they wake up soon before America is made very less great again.
One way: get to know some retired persons facing skyrocketing costs and pay attention to what part of town they live in. Get to know some fathers and mothers who’ve spent years in prison away from their kids for having made the “good business” decision to sell anything they could to put food on the table when factories shipped jobs overseas. Get to know some people who’ve crossed the border to do the same for their kids when American companies decimated farmland they, or their families, used to and make a living from. Get to know a Japanese person who spent years growing up in Manzanar. Get some food in Dearborn at a family owned restaurant and ask the owner if he’s secretly trying to kill you with his grandmother’s hummus recipe. Get to know an actual, living, breathing woman who has to deal with sexism on a daily basis.
In all my readings of the Bible, I believe this is close to the heart of what Jesus means.
“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’” – Matthew 25:37-40 MSG
And the verse Marshall mentioned in this article, that the poor will always be with us, it was meant to reflect the brokenness of humanity and also to still need to still carve time to spend with Jesus! Read the actual verse here. It was not meant to justify sitting on a higher class horse and making up lies, or bearing false witness, about those with less. Later in the article, he does start to note this, but he has already done so much intentional damage in spreading a political lie.
The actual reasons people fail to get healthcare, recommit crimes, desperately seek physical attention, and stay in the cycle they are in is because our society is designed to favor people who look like me and people who have most of the money. We justify: “well, they’ve earned it, (without ever wondering if they might have mis-earned it), or “this country was built by hard working European immigrants” (casually forgetting that this land was stolen and most of our most iconic national buildings were built by stolen and cheap labor).
Let’s tell the whole truth. This law would give great tax relief to people who don’t really need it, and puts the burden back on people who do, and even suggesting the blame lies on our poorer and older citizens hides the deeply problematic system designed to benefit only some of us.
Last year, at Fuller Theological Seminary, I got into a bit of a debate with Professor Love Sechrest, one of the three African-American female educators on campus. Debate might be a generous term; it was more like this: in our close study of the letter of Paul to the Romans, Professor Sechrest’s lecture was poised to leap right over Romans 14, saying it was mostly an insignificant chapter about old food customs and issues between early cultures in the initial spread of Christianity. And that was that. I actually gasped, sound popped out of my mouth, because I had been looking forward to our discussion on Romans specifically to talk about chapter 14. It’s always been my favorite.
Professor Sechrest heard me, raised her eyebrows and asked, “do you have something to add, Matthew?”
I stammered, started, hesitated, and managed to eke out, “uh, can I just see you after class?”
“Yes, moving on to chapters 15 and 16….”
Afterwards, I laid out why I love the chapter, why I think it’s a great foundation for modern work in reconciliation and interfaith dialogue, and I walked away satisfied with her brief response, “well, I think I might have to give it another look.”
For instance, a person who has been around for a while might well be convinced that he can eat anything on the table, while another, with a different background, might assume he should only be a vegetarian and eat accordingly. But since both are guests at Christ’s table, wouldn’t it be terribly rude if they fell to criticizing what the other ate or didn’t eat? God, after all, invited them both to the table. Do you have any business crossing people off the guest list or interfering with God’s welcome?
If there are corrections to be made or manners to be learned, God can handle that without your help. Or, say, one person thinks that some days should be set aside as holy and another thinks that each day is pretty much like any other. There are good reasons either way. So, each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience.
What’s important in all this is that if you keep a holy day, keep it for God’s sake; if you eat meat, eat it to the glory of God and thank God for prime rib; if you’re a vegetarian, eat vegetables to the glory of God and thank God for broccoli. None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters. It’s God we are answerable to—all the way from life to death and everything in between—not each other. That’s why Jesus lived and died and then lived again: so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other. (Romans 14:2-9, MSG)
The setting is a dinner table. The context is diversity within the early Jesus-following community. We’ll come back to this.
Thinking back to my college days as a vegetarian, I can think on many meals where the guidance of Romans 14 was not followed.
“So, all you’re going to eat is vegetables? Are you going to need me to cook all of the ones I’ve got?”
“Oh, it’s just that liberal college life phase thing again.”
“Are you into free love, too?”
These were common “blessings” dropped on me in the late 90’s before we dug in, and after bristling and having to posture some sort of quippy response, I was less interested in investing in the remainder of those conversations. If knocking vegetarianism was topic number one, I wasn’t chomping at any bits to start talking about the lessons I was learning from doing improvisational theater work in Detroit area prisons.
The truth: I was a vegetarian to impress a young woman. And it worked, so I stuck to it for a while, probably in defiant pride.
Paul was writing to a people that had been brought up with strict food guidelines for generations, partially for health reasons but mostly to adhere to what Scripture commanded. It was for maintaining cultural clarity. In this, it’s not hard to imagine the consternation and confusion that this new influx of members, for lack of a better term, was causing the culturally Jewish folks. Imagine something like a Thanksgiving meal in the United States, with the pumpkin pies, the sweet potatoes, and of course, the turkeys, both the natural and the tofu ones. In walks a family member’s new spouse with, say, pepperoni pizza and starts passing it around. Everyone likes pizza, yes? People might even take a slice or two, but would most likely be murmuring about how odd it was for Thanksgiving. If those murmurs were overheard by the new family member, it would most certainly cause a feeling of less-than-fully-welcomed awkwardness.
The Jewish people were being asked to consider that in the increasingly diversifying community of following Jesus, they ought to expect this new kind of dynamic at gatherings. So much so that Paul felt compelled to lay down a new paradigm of table manners. In other words, this isn’t just for your family anymore, it was always meant to win the whole world back to God’s table in God’s Kingdom. Don’t pick on each other and definitely do not kill the spirit of welcome extended to everyone by Christ.
Remember, the human based impetus to crucify Jesus came, in part, as a reaction to his radical teachings. He was talking about decentralizing human power and reorienting everyone towards God’s ultimate sovereignty. Quite often, his stories centered the righteous actions not in the religious leaders of the day but in the outsiders, even the hated Samaritans. Jesus’ sermons on the mount and plain lay out a mission to go from town to town with good news and invitation (once the sick and afflicted amidst them are tended to), meaning there will be even more new people at the tables. Finally, directly before he ascends to God, after being asked if the kingdom will be restored to Israel, Jesus shifts the conversation into letting them know they are to be his witnesses, or storytellers, in “Judea, Samaria, even to the ends of the world.” (Acts 1:8, MSG)
I believe Paul included the lessons contained in chapter 14 because he understood that Christianity, the practice of following Jesus, would be increasingly more complicated as new cultures, with all their food rules and customs, were brought to the same tables alongside the original witnesses with their well-worn traditions. In other words: expect to sit at diverse tables, forevermore. But by 1960, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out that “11:00 on Sunday morning is one of the most, if not the most, segregated hours in Christian America.”
How would MLK reflect on the level of integration within Christian churches of 2017? How would you? How would Jesus?
The table is central to sharing the Gospel because it is central to being a human being. A meal with others, when the intentional decency of Romans 14 is followed, allows us to share in our vulnerability (we need to eat!), for us to share our hospitality (we can share of our resources and our gifts!), and a place to tell and listen to stories. It is a prime place to be understood and to understand. It is level ground, there’s no such thing as a sloped table with some sitting higher than others. Sure, there is often a human host who may assume a form of leadership, but Romans 14 urges that we humbly recall that the true host is actually Christ, guarding against any person-to-person hierarchies that may develop. Romans 14 sets the perfect table.
In our highly divided nation, in which the furors of 2016 were not the instigator of the division but rather, the boiling over of the reality that MLK called into question: the American church has failed to set ideal tables, tables that honor and reflect the diversity of God’s kingdom, for centuries. And so we don’t know one another, and, I would argue, we are unfortunately only able to understand God through the limits of our own cultural practices.
Let’s step back into that pizza moment at Thanksgiving: while I admit if that were to happen at my table, my initial response would be to quietly find it odd and, well, out of place. But what if someone had the courage to ask the new family member, without sarcasm, “why did you bring pizza today?” And suppose that person answered with a story about a Thanksgiving from her youth in which her grandmother became gravely ill in the morning, and her entire family spent the day in the hospital in prayer and grief. And what if she said that the only thing the hospital cafeteria had on hand was cold pepperoni pizza? And what if she said that her grandmother’s last words to her gave her such hope that at the end of one’s life a person could have such faith in Christ? And what if she said that, from that day forth, she always has one piece of pizza on Thanksgiving to remind her of how thankful she is for her grandmother’s witness?
I’m guessing that you wouldn’t scoff at her decision to bring pizza anymore, and I’m guessing you would share in some sense of gratitude over the one piece that you took (unless you’re that guy who took two and are now sheepishly trying to slip one piece back to the box without anyone noticing.) You needed to hear the story first, and you had to set your judgment aside to really let it touch you.
Of course, she might also say that she doesn’t like turkey, and pizza is simply her favorite food. But even then, we would have learned something about her, something about her humanity, and would have been given the opportunity to appreciate her honesty.
|Dwayne holding my daughter in 2010|
When I first moved to New Orleans, I was a sixth grade teacher through the Teach For America movement. Also, I was hell-bent on saving all these “poor” Black and Vietnamese kids in the Ninth Ward. As a person who passes for white in this modern day, I was deeply indoctrinated as a perfectionist. (Am I being glib mentioning that I pass for white? Of course you do, you might say, you’re a white guy! But it’s important to remember that my German and Irish Catholic ancestors were not considered white upon immediately landing on this continent. They were the problematic “others” until it became politically prudent to draw new boundary lines around whiteness, of which my new neighbors in New Orleans are still not within, no matter how “high-yellow” their skin is. Whiteness was invented, and the heart behind it is sinful and idolatrous.) In 1999, I wanted to use my status as a self-righteous White person to bless these kids who I knew were given the shortest ends of the shortest sticks. I am locating my own whiteousness.
But, like I said, I am a perfectionist. Which is, to say, that I have bought into a lie that my performance will set me above my fellow brothers and sisters. I believe this stems from the same idolatrous spirit that invented whiteness. After all, what was the white status created for, what was it intending to accomplish? It was to self-select a sense of chosen-ness, a sense of privilege that set some people apart and more deserving than others. And, it worked. “White” is the normative and dominant standard in our cultural practices today. To value whiteness, though, requires that we imagine ourselves sitting at higher tables, that we believe we are somehow entitled to more. And within the communities that pass as white, we must then strive to be a more perfect example of white values. There is nothing wrong with working hard to present the best example of your skills and talents. But whiteness sells us the lie that some people are more esteemed, more perfect, than other. If you are not feeling blessed enough, you can fall into the trap of believing that you’re not meeting the standard quite well enough. Perfection-ism.
Is this not what legalism amidst the Pharisees was all about during Jesus’ time walking the earth? I could earn my right standing with God and be seen as blameless? Is this not an echo of the clamor around the golden calf, a symbol of choosing to live by our own rules and standards, no matter how much Moses was glowing when he came down from the mountain to tell us God’s will? Have we white people, and those who aspire to live like the white elite, thrown out the gift of our shared humanity for a chance to feel closer to God by believing we are the most special? That we can earn perfection by subscribing to a certain standard of culture and behavior? Was the social climbing that is the American Dream prophetically warned against in the tale of Babylon?
Romans 14 became a lived reality for me in New Orleans, when, feeling sorry for myself because I felt like an epic failure as a teacher, I was invited over to dinner by families of my students. Cedric’s family, Deja’s, Dwayne’s, Roy’s, Mai’s, Isiah’s, Leland’s and others reached out to me. In stark contrast to the jeers I experienced in suburban Detroit over my vegetarian diet, I was taken aback to learn that not only had my students picked up on this detail, but often at dinners I found that a special pot of gumbo was made. Just for me. No jeering, only hospitality. And then, I would learn that in New Orleans East in the late 90’s, vegetarianism meant that you didn’t eat red meat. My special pot was filled with chicken and shrimp. I had a choice: I could point out the technicalities of their misunderstanding and educate this community on true vegetarianism. Or, I could just eat it. I chose the latter. And I chose to be taken care of by this new community. I relaxed, listened, told stories, and allowed them to see my imperfections.
|Deja and Charlotte in 2010|
If you asked me what I might describe salvation tastes like, I would say celery, bell peppers, and onions. It’s what Louisianan cooks refer to as the Holy Trinity.
You see, I had to receive at the tables of families whom I thought I was there to save. I had to willingly allow my whiteousness to be dismantled. I had to start a process of allowing the fallacies of my perfectionism to be critiqued, laughed at, and exposed for the aggressive and destructive lie that it is. Perfectionism in this country is an insidious indicator of someone who subscribes, even subconsciously, to white supremacy. Not necessarily someone who would attend KKK rallies, but the very notion that one race is perfect and all others are substandard is the byproduct of a supremacist philosophy.
This was just the beginning of learning that diversity brings gifts, especially when bridges of new perspectives are allowed space to be told, space to be heard, and space to be pondered.
So I celebrate the gift of remembering that we are all invited to God’s table. In fact, those discussions over gumbo were so filled with the Holy Spirit, so filled with prayer and hopes and laments, I am so grateful I did not choose to educate when I was a guest at their tables. In turn, they did not expect me to be a perfect teacher, they just expected me to love their kids and do my best for them. What a relief it was to just be myself! And what an honor it was to be asked to help to teach their kids. Not to save them, but to love them and give them only my humanly limited best.
This is the heartbeat, for me, behind my calling to urge my brothers and sisters of European descent to regularly sit down at tables with people who look different to first listen, and also to share honestly. This is why I boldly, but humbly, ask my friends of African, Asian, and Native North and South American descents to be patient with me, as I am still in recovery, and with others who seek to understand but are still bound to the chains of this supremacist perfectionism that has informed every day of our lives. This is not easy. This is not Kumbayah. But I believe it is what is expected of us as Christians.
“One of the greatest tasks afforded to humanity is to stretch our theology, to expand our ideologies concerning God, and bring that experience to bear on and in those who need him most.” – Dr. William Byron Reese Jr.
When we sit a table together and break bread, we remember that Jesus did this with and for us before he was murdered, and we can never outshine the supremacy of that personal sacrifice. When we share stories around a table, enjoying each other’s foods, we open ourselves to learning about God from the Samaritan’s point of view; from the poor white veteran who spent years in prison; from the Syrian refugee who stepped forward into the unknown with hope against hope; from the black woman who gets requests to empty an over-filled garbage receptacle while she is on rounds visiting her patients; from the father from El Salvador who is not as worried about his citizenship status as he is about feeding his children. Do we, as privileged white people have the only thing to offer when it comes to ideas about who God is? Absolutely, and thankfully, not. We have so much more to learn, and we ought to take that on as the gift that it is.
|Cedric meeting Ruby in 2013|
Because the alternative, for me, is to recognize that my privilege blinds me to my worldly riches. Furthermore, being oblivious to my advantages while lacking empathy for those without them marks me as the type of person Jesus was referring to in Matthew 19:24 who would have to somehow pass through the eye of a needle to enter God’s Kingdom.
So here is where the real work begins. Pastor Alex Cornell, currently serving in Houston, recently challenged me: “Matthew, you preach a good word reminding us that Jesus aims to teach us through the Samaritans in our lives. Who would you say are your Samaritans?” Now he knew that, for me, it is not the black people on the other side of 8 mile from my suburban Detroit upbringing. He knew that for me, I have already found great encouragement from sharing life with my undocumented neighbors in Los Angeles. He was leading me to ponder these questions:
Can I, Matthew, sit at a table with someone who voted for Donald Trump specifically because of his racist rhetoric, and can I learn anything about God from that person? Could I have the courage to share my stories and pray that they, in turn, learn something about God from my perspective? Certainly, there is always risk of being shunned and shut out, but the heart of our work at the Table Setters is to take very seriously the work that we believe Jesus lays out for us, the missions and promises that Paul reiterates in Romans 14 for the early Church.
The Kingdom of God is not bubbled into red-lined safe havens, marked and divided by zip codes. There are the believers and the non-believers, sure, but amidst the believers, not one of us is more special or more beautiful than our sister or brother. (And, Jesus died for the unbelievers too, we must not forget!) Not one of us is more worthy because of our perspectives. Even if we figured out how to scientifically rearrange our atoms so that we actually could pass through the eye of a sewing needle. No, God created us as diverse in skin, body, and perspective for a purpose, and it’s time to throw out the idol of Whiteousness so we can experience a fuller picture of love, mercy, grace, and celebration.
My co-founding partner and I have started the Table Setters because our long friendship has taught us so much more about who God is than either of us ever knew before. Why should that matter? Because the odds of us becoming friends, having been born on two different sides of the country twenty years apart, him being an adopted black man to two black parents in the urban sprawl of the Bay Area, me being born to two white parents in the suburbs, it wasn’t going to just happen. Our country is not currently arranged for these kinds of friendships to organically occur. We had to make choices to move in a direction towards one another, and that movement, we believe, has important implications for us as Christians and for those of us who live in increasingly diversifying communities.