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Creating Tables of Our Own

I could have been either 11 or 12, I’m not sure. It was November, and my maternal grandmother — Grandmama, as we called her — announced that Sister Jackson would be coming to Thanksgiving dinner in a few days. (We were black Baptists, so everyone was “Sister This,” or “Brother That,” or “Pastor Him.” They were always “him” because they were always men.)

Sister Jackson was a member of my childhood church who belonged to Grandmama’s choir. Occasionally, we’d take her home after Sunday service or Thursday night choir rehearsal. But Grandmama was taking it a step further this time because she didn’t like Sister Jackson’s living conditions or the way her family neglected her. So Grandmama was having her over for Thanksgiving dinner. End of story. People like Grandmama who have been excluded from others’ tables often do the work of creating their own.

Which is why it can be misleading when we hear about exclusion from tables in our own day and time. Whether the exclusion is rooted in racism, sexism, white supremacy, transantagonism, heterosexism, or some other form of boundary-drawing, we often assume that if someone is excluded from our table, they aren’t eating at all.

I have never not lived in the South. My father’s parents descended from enslaved black people in South Carolina, and my mother’s parents descended from enslaved black people in Texas and Louisiana. I was raised in North Texas, educated in Tennessee and Virginia, and now serve a parish in Memphis. Central to black Southern experiences — and I use the word “experiences” intentionally, since there is nothing monolithic about any of this — is cuisine.

For instance, I can’t tell you what was discussed at that Thanksgiving dinner in 2001 or 2002, but I can tell you what we ate: collard and mustard greens, green beans infused with dry salt jowl and new potatoes, hen and dressing, candied yams, pig’s feet, a honey-covered ham, corn and cornbread, sock-it-to-me cake. My ancestors made do with the leftovers, the parts of the pig and other labor camp property their white enslavers didn’t want. The white enslavers — who are my ancestors as well, but that is a long story — thought they were excluding my black ancestors from their tables. But my black ancestors created tables of their own.

One needs only a casual relationship with the Gospels to notice that Jesus was more concerned with tables than with the Temple. The Gospel According to St. John opens with Jesus attending a wedding reception in Cana of Galilee, and the Gospel According to St. Luke contains story after story of Jesus eating with people the establishment understood as undesirable, social and religious liabilities.

Take, for instance, the number of times the author of Luke’s Gospel mentions Jesus at a table: five. Once at Levi’s house with a hoard of tax collectors and other social outcasts; once at a Pharisee’s house where he dignifies a woman’s offering of expensive ointment; another stint at a Pharisee’s house where he is cross-examined by the religious and political establishment; once in an upper room with his disciples just before his crucifixion; and once after his resurrection, on the road to Emmaus.

Like us, Jesus’s regional, religious, ethnic, and other identities informed his understanding of the politics and ethics of food. A loaf of bread broken among friends is never apolitical, but always infused with meaning. (Who is and isn’t present at its breaking is a matter St. Paul addresses quite pointedly in his first letter to the Corinthians.)

There is, in Jesus’s building of communities around tables, a sense that this is precisely how God will usher in a new era of justice — not in the centers of power and prestige, but at the periphery, at the tables adorned with leftovers. When Jesus feasts with outcasts, he is engendering the way the reality of Divine Love breaks into our reality: by defying every book of etiquette. Jesus demonstrates that God does not appear in the world in neatly wrapped packages, but in the middle of chaotic dinner parties, the fragility of a teenage pregnancy, and the mess of the general human experience.

Image by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images, © All Rights Reserved.

As I said before, I was raised in North Texas — Fort Worth, to be exact. Every year of my childhood, my parents, paternal grandparents, and extended family would throw a huge neighborhood party on the Fourth of July. (In Texas, when you say, “I’m going to a barbecue,” you actually mean it. You are actually going to a barbecue to eat barbecue, unlike some regions of our country in which a Texan is told they are going to a barbecue, but the host actually means a picnic.)

One hundred fifty to 200 people of various races, ethnicities, and other identities would show up in my grandparents’s backyard, people who probably weren’t invited to snazzy rooftop gatherings downtown. And that was okay. Because even if we didn’t have status or prestige, we had each other. We had a safe place to simply be, even if it was a backyard in a working class black neighborhood.

While food is a source of nourishment, it can also be weaponized. For instance, consider the number of food deserts there are throughout our nation and the world. The neighborhood in which my grandparents lived and my parents were raised was and is a food desert. There is little to no access to grocery stores, farmers’ markets, or other sources of healthy food. Government subsidies and corporations willing to invest in those communities are basically non-existent. Black people and some other racial minorities are left with practices around food that lead to a life expectancy significantly lower than that of white Americans. So while food is a gem of Southern and American culture, it is also a politicized and contentious matter in need of just and proper reform.

The centrality of food in the shape of Christian life is no different from its influence in the rest of life. If one becomes a spiritual child in baptism, then the bread and wine of the Eucharist is, for lack of a better term, the Gerber baby food of the baptized life. Toward the Eucharist moves the rest of life, and from it flows the whole of life. It is the embodiment of the prayer Jesus taught us, the bread we need for that day and that day only, not a sacramental hoarding of resources better put to use through just distribution.

It is the faithful practice of God’s economy — not of abundance, but of the divine economy of enough. Think about the wandering Israelites in the Book of Exodus and how God fed them manna every day. God didn’t instruct them to hoard the manna, but invited them to trust that God would show back up the next day to feed them. But they were accustomed to Pharaoh’s manipulative food politics, his violent rations, and simply couldn’t trust that they would actually be taken care of. And so they worried and hoarded and worried and hoarded.

People in our own day worry and hoard and save and build storage space for manna. They operate out of economies of abundance and scarcity instead of the economy of enough. Which is why my family still eats chitterlings to this day — because our family’s white enslavers were operating out of the economy of scarcity and abundance, of fear and domestic terrorism. And we inherited the pig’s intestines, the leftovers, our own manna.

James Jones holds his granddaughter D'kyra Williams at a family birthday party for Ruthie Wilson at a home owned by the Wilsons for over 100 years in the historically black community of Goldsboro in Sanford, Florida. Image by Mario Tama/Getty Images, © All Rights Reserved.

We made something savory and filling out of the stuff that they didn’t want. And ritually, usually around Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve, my parents would roll up their sleeves and clean those chitlins, handling them with the same lightness and care their ancestors did. And on those cool winter evenings, even to this day, we feast with those ancestors, recalling our emancipation, our freedom, our liberation — not unlike my own work as an Episcopal priest, recalling for a baptized assembly, and the whole world, the ways in which God has and does deliver and liberate us from the power of evil, from forces that seek to do us harm, from systems and individuals more interested in shedding blood than throwing good parties.

That is what eating together, sharing a table does. It expands our social and theological imaginations, ushers in a new way of relating to each other, while bringing our origin stories to bear in tangible and transformative ways. And it brings to mind all those who won’t be seated at tables with their loved ones anymore, due to state-sanctioned violence exacted upon them during a chance encounter with police or because they’ve been banished from their family of origin due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

And it causes us to recall, in Word and Sacrament, the dramatic story of Jesus — that he was drawn to those whom others ignored. We’re reminded that his way of life, that God’s way of creating, loving, and setting us free, is defined by those with whom we share food, at the tables and altars we create and feast at in our famished times.

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