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Church at the Table: Dinner Church in Brooklyn and “Eating Heaven”

Sunday, 1 December 2013  | Megan Curlis-Gibson

You can’t tell by looking at me, but I am actually very cool. You see, I have been to Dinner Church in New York—Brooklyn, in fact. Yep. It was in a Zen Centre in Park Slope. We ate vegetarian food with kale in it. Convinced? I know you are.

I found St. Lydia’s Dinner Church by stalking the Facebook feed of a much cooler acquaintance who was asking for suggestions of churches to visit in New York. We were there for my husband’s work, and the sound of this “dinner church” enticed. I love dinner (you can tell that by looking at me) and I mostly love church, so what could be better? 

Flippancy aside, the notion of church at the table should be an enticing one. Meals are where so much of the important stuff of life takes place. We see that most profoundly in the mission-life of the Lord Jesus. The Son of Man came for the purpose of seeking and saving the lost, and to serve and give his life as a ransom (Luke 19:10; Mark 10:45)—but how did he come? The Son of Man came eating and drinking (Luke 7:34). Tim Chester shows in his A Meal with Jesus (Crossway, 2011) that Jesus’ mission of salvation was so often pursued through the practice of the meal. For Chester, meals in the gospel of Luke are enacted grace, enacted community, enacted hope, enacted salvation, and enacted promise. By eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus challenges the Pharisees’ understanding of salvation, law, inclusion and grace (Luke 5) without saying a word. By breaking bread with the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24), Jesus could reveal that the promise of his Father’s kingdom were already being fulfilled in his broken and resurrected body that could eat and drink again with them.   

But can church gatherings themselves work around the table? Clearly they must in one sense—when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are symbolically gathering around a table of communion. For most of us, though, Holy Communion is not so much a meal these days as a ritual—a powerful one, but perhaps not one that, as Michael Frost puts it, is always “the lubricant of genuine community and, strangely, the revealer of its nature” (Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture, Baker Books, 2006). Food and drink shared together in the context of a meal are what do that best.  

Enter the dinner church. St. Lydia’s is by no means the first or only—many of us have experienced all kinds of meals at church. But St. Lydia’s is striking because every service involves a meal every week (indeed, twice weekly, Sunday and Monday—although the congregations are mostly different) and the meal is integrated into the service itself, with liturgy and movement around and within it. Furthermore, the meal is prepared by those who come on the night, not a rostered group, and the final song only happens after all the dinner clean-up is done—because such work is part of worship too.  

The church is the four-year old creation of Pastor Emily Scott, now ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America with a background in the Episcopalian Church, and her colleague, Rachel Pollak. Emily’s background is in the intersection of worship and the arts, especially music, but she is clearly a gifted pastor and thoughtful communicator. When we parked our rented car at the front of the building, Emily met us and took us upstairs to the space that the group rents. The big windows overlooking the Gowanus/Park Slope neighbourhood bathed the minimalist Zen décor in late Spring sunlight. If this were a restaurant, I thought, I’d want to eat here. An assistant was delegated to arrange colouring materials for our two-year-old daughter as those who were arriving began to set tables and work on the meal in the kitchen.  

The beauty of the interior was enhanced as we lit candles on each table from ones we had lit during an entrance prayer and responsive song. The liturgical aspects of the service, based in part on the Didache, meant that a certain beauty was brought to the meal itself, even though the food was very basic—and this was something new to my experience of table fellowship in a larger church gathering. The sermon was given after the vegetarian pasta was eaten and followed by an open time of reflection and prayer. Simple songs were sung at moments of transition, with musical accompaniment from a Shruti Box, a wooden harmonium instrument that produces a drone reminiscent of both Indian and Irish music. Here is not a group of people doing dinner together after church, as much as that is a precious thing—this is an integrated experience, with an ordered movement to the evening, physically and in the spoken and sung word. We gathered, we sang, we walked, we sat, we blessed the meal, we shared on each table a cup of juice and a loaf of bread, we paused, we prayed, we sat in silence, we got up, we cleaned, we gathered, we sang.  

I suspect the ordered and repeated pattern of the evening has many purposes, but one is clearly inclusion. Everyone is expected to help. Everyone takes part in “communion”—no one has to walk up the front, or be given permission. Everyone is allowed to share what is on their mind or heart. You don’t come in and nervously look to find a seat—you come in and work and then everyone moves to the tables together. You don’t hope someone will speak to you after the service—you take part in conversation as you sit and eat the same meal as the person next to you—free of charge. You don’t begrudge a person you find “difficult” or “other” your time and energy, because this isn’t a one-off special meal for your group: you know that you will have dinner church again next week—or even tomorrow—and some meals are easier than others.  

Beauty and inclusion are great reasons to explore doing church at the table. In 2011, I was part of a congregation plant called “The River” in which the ‘service’ always ended with a picnic outside. It was a conscious way of bringing the beauty of God’s creation (so easy to find in Warrandyte) into the sphere of worship, as well as providing a “table” where friendships grew and conversations were deepened by the theme of the interactive service before it. And if you hadn’t been able to contribute during the discussion time inside the church, at least you could now talk to your neighbor, even about how yummy the brownies were! The quality and abundance of food was part of the beauty of the experience—enacting the grace of our God, in its goodness and inclusiveness. Conscious provision was made on a grand scale for those with different dietary needs. Those who couldn’t usually eat the cake at parties, could eat the cake here, and they felt served and included. Picnic church became a good party to be at, month in and month out.  

Simon Carey Holt would argue that our various tables always involve experiences of beauty and inclusion, whether revealing their absence or bringing abundance. His recent publication Eating Heaven: Spirituality at the Table (Acorn Press, Melbourne, 2013) is a very readable, very reflective book drawing on his personal experience in the hospitality industry, sociological research on food and justice, as well as his work with the iconic Collins Street Baptist Church in Melbourne’s CBD. It isn’t especially rich in Biblical theology, but it is a helpful and challenging read for those seeking to reflect on Australian society for the sake of their spirit, as well as those seeking to explore church at the table.   

Knowing his background, I was surprised and delighted by Holt’s celebration of Melbourne’s café culture and fine dining. He shares an experience of the degustation menu at Jacques Reymond in delicious detail, and provides mouth-watering recipes at the end of every chapter in the book. Yes, Holt admits with passion, such “rich and sumptuous expressions of life” highlight the exclusivity of the Five Star Table and the injustice and division within our society, and this cannot be ignored. And yet, he says, beauty at a table can sustain our soul just as much as the staples fill our stomachs. Beauty in a meal and at the table points us to the good Source of all abundance and gives a glimpse, rarer for some than for others, of the beauty of God’s creation that is shared with us simply because God is good.  

Holt often draws our attention to the way in which our various tables reveal our unspoken but enacted views on who is “in” and who is “out”—of society as well as of God’s kingdom feast. Despite our celebrated multiculturalism and the breadth of our palates, we are still very segregated as we share our meals in Australia. He writes movingly of the way the various restaurant workers, often non-English speaking, are invisible at our multicultural feasts and he mourns the “diminishment, even eradication, of the indigenous food cultures” due to white settlement. In a world obsessed with food, a look at our tables can tell us more than we think. 1.1 billion people in the world eat too much, 1.1 billion are starving. Meals that ought to be producing gratitude are falling on hardened hearts, excess and hunger are obscuring truth, and tables that should be places of relationship exclude those who fail to measure up.  

At the table, beauty must be held together or at least in tension with justice. Collins Street Baptist Church hosts the tables of Credo Café, serving Melbourne’s homeless, at the back of their building, and yet at the front they have developed The Verandah Café, serving “lattes and Phillippa’s pastries… to office workers and tourists.” Both are conscious of bringing beauty, and both see themselves as nurturing community and serving a diversity of people, and both seek to connect people with the church in ways that are appropriate for life contexts. However, there is no escaping the fact that those who eat at Credo do not eat at Verandah. This is our world. We are in need of a new kingdom where the feast is for all because of the sacrifice of One.  

This is the ultimate gift of including meals in our experience of church—the revelation of our need—for our daily bread, for their daily bread, for a closer imitation of Christ and for his kingdom come.  If I am at a beautiful table or picnic blanket or Messy Church dinner, I can see and taste and feel the questions that must be asked, far more than if I am facing forward in a pew or a row of comfortable chairs. I must start to ask myself: Who sits at this table? Who did I choose to eat with? Why? Who was invited? Who isn’t here? What is my conversation about as I eat my meal? What is being celebrated here? Who has sacrificed to make this a reality? How have I acknowledged and given thanks? How will this meal feed me? 

And if I read the Scriptures with the church around the table as I ask these questions I will be both challenged and blessed. I am welcome here. Tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, younger brothers and sisters, older brothers and sisters are welcome here. The poor, the lame, the ones who were thought to be outside God’s grace are to be invited. I am to invite them just as God invites them.  

At “The River” church we concluded a series on the Prodigal Son/God by sharing a Middle Eastern feast in someone’s home. There was lots of meat and fragrant vegetables, wine and sweet desserts. More than 20 adults and kids squeezed around two tables, people who believed and people who didn’t, people who felt like good Christians and people who didn’t. In a way, we were ‘eating heaven’. God’s kingdom is a feast, a party when a prodigal son returns. God’s grace is good and delicious and sustaining and satisfying; beautiful and inclusive. And whose self-sacrifice made my entrance into this kingdom feast a reality? The Lord Jesus Christ—whose body and blood are now my daily bread. His table is my table and I am blessed.


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