Kendall Vanderslice: Feasting brings people together in community

At dinner table churches like Simple Church, simple meals and breadmaking facilitate deep conversations and communal friendship. Photo courtesy of Simple Church

The hope of the church lies in a commitment to feast with one another, writes the author of the new book, “We Will Feast.”

The first dinner church service I ever attended was awkward.

I’m outgoing, but I tend to shrink back when I’m in large groups. I worry about what to do with my body, or how much to share about my life or my work. I stumble over words and grow self-conscious about anything I try to say. So when two friends asked me to ride out with them to a church focused on table conversation, I prepared myself for discomfort.

The setting was idyllic -- a small New England town where four churches, a library, and a strip of small businesses were situated around a large green space and a gazebo.

In the parking lot of the church, children tossed a Frisbee while a young, bearded man dressed in red plaid and a black beanie greeted the stream of women and men walking through the door. An older woman carried her casserole dish of mac and cheese. A father arrived with his four ravenous sons. A farmer and his veterinarian wife carried a salad of fresh vegetables.

My friends and I followed the stream of folks into the church basement and I attempted small talk until Pastor Zach, the bearded man clad in plaid, began strumming his guitar and encouraging us to form a circle around the perimeter of the room. After singing, praying, and sharing bread -- the first half of Communion -- we shuffled through a buffet and settled into seats at a table of strangers.

I gripped my glass of water as the small talk continued, grateful that my body had something to do -- lift, sip, swallow, repeat. While we munched on salad, soup, and mac and cheese, Zach read Scripture and preached a quick sermon, culminating in a series of discussion questions. One in particular is seared in my memory: Do you live with any deep regrets? What would it look like to acknowledge that you are forgiven?

I listened carefully as the people around me bore intimate details of their lives -- stories of pain and longing, of difficulty accepting that God’s forgiveness means we are allowed to forgive ourselves too. I remained silent, honored to hold these vulnerable pieces of people I’d only just met, yet I felt terrified to share my own -- could I really tell strangers about the friendship I failed to reconcile, the death I grieve not simply because of her absence but because of the forgiveness we will never exchange?

My stomach churned as the evening wore on. Eventually I shared -- stumbling over words that half-expressed the story of my deepest regret, aware that there was not time or space to get into all of the details. My neighbors nodded, thanked me for my honesty, and assured me that despite my grief, I am forgiven.

Then they poured grape juice into my cup, and I poured into theirs, and we gulped together the nectar of Christ’s blood, the assurance that we cannot be separated from the love and forgiveness of God.

I’ve reflected on that night countless times since: on mac and cheese and mason jars of Welch’s. That evening around the table, though so deeply awkward and uncomfortable in many ways, I witnessed a church practicing full-bodied Communion in the midst of disagreement, heartache, regret and shame.

Tensions over theological and social divisions threaten the Church across all denominations. Injustice prevails where the voices of those marginalized by society are muffled. Loneliness crushes those whose communities fail to hold both sorrow and joy. Hunger permeates congregations where spiritual needs are privileged over physical ones. Christians across the country starve for a way forward in the midst of increasing social and political polarization.

Yet so often, we are afraid to acknowledge the Holy Spirit at work in places we do not believe the Spirit should be.

It’s terrifying to recognize that God moves in churches and in people who do not look, worship, believe like me. It’s humbling to accept that, despite my careful study of and desire to remain faithful to Scripture and tradition, I do not in fact hold a monopoly on theological truth.

But around the table, at Simple Church -- the community described above -- and at the ten different dinner churches across the country I’ve visited since, I’ve experienced hope grounded in the surety that the sacrament of Communion is in fact meant to form Christians -- who disagree on a wide range of issues -- together in community.

On the evening before his crucifixion, Christ gave his disciples a meal to mark God’s promise to heal community while also doing the very act of community formation. While Christians continue to honor the elements of bread and wine as a sacrament of unity, we’ve lost focus on the importance of the meal itself in living out that unity.

We focus intently on right belief -- especially right belief about that meal -- yet we fail to sit at tables with our neighbors and allow the meal to shape us, to challenge us, to form us, and ultimately to heal us together through the sharing of stories and the promise of Christ’s presence.

I’m convinced that the only way forward for the church in this moment is a commitment to discomfort -- a commitment I believe lies at the heart of the Eucharist itself.

At the dinner table, where an abundant spread can disarm our fear or anger, we are given the opportunity to wrestle through the discomfort of disagreement. We are invited to hear and see our neighbors in ways we might never have known them before. We are given the chance to watch the Spirit move in people and places with whom we don’t want to admit the Spirit abides.

Then we are given the chance to extend a handful of steaming sourdough and a generous pour of grape juice, or a rich swig of port, and remember together Christ’s body and blood broken so that we might never say to one another, “I do not need you.”

I’m convinced that the hope of the church lies in a commitment to feast with one another, remembering in the depth of our bellies God’s promise that there will be a day when we weep, and fight and hunger no more.