More than a table

They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.                            —Acts of the Apostles, 2:46

Last week, I had to buy a dining room table. It is the first time I’ve ever done so and to be honest, I was loathing the very idea of it. I am not the home decorating type, and for the vast majority of my life most of my furnishings have consisted of what my parents gave me or what I could cobble together from thrift store clearance sales.

But my wife was insistent that in our new home we were going to have a room into which we would want to invite people into. A place where people could be hosted and fed. The space needed a table worthy of the welcome. As we sat staring into the empty dining room and thinking about the idea, I was surprised how the conversation about a piece of furniture became philosophical so quickly.

“Okay … so what kind of table do you want?” I said.

My wife responded, “Well first, it has to be sturdy. It has to be something solid and well built. We’re going to be feeding people here for decades. We’re going to feed our grandchildren here. So it needs to be made to last.”

“Okay …” I said, closing the Ikea.com tab on my browser, “what else?”

“It needs to be big. We’re going to have people over for holidays with everyone welcome to bring as many guests as they want. We need to have as many seats as possible.”

“Well,” I thought out loud, “if we want so many seats, then what if instead of chairs we had benches? Then people can always scoot together to make more room, or spread out if there’s no need.”

“I like that idea … for one side at least. But some of our friends and relatives are old. They won’t be comfortable on a benchthey’ll need back support. I want everyone to be comfortable. And some of our friends are a little heavierthey might feel self-conscious on a bench. Better we have at least a number of chairs.”

The conversation went on for a while longer, but at every turn I realized that for my wife this was about far more than a table. It was about warmth and welcoming, about fellowship and feeding friends. She wanted to serve, and to accommodate the needs of all. She had joy and welcoming in mind, but it was going to take a table to help those things unfold.

child-break-bread-sign-by-Steven-Cottam
Excited to serve hospitality around the new table (image courtesy of Steven Cottam).

I realized through this conversation that far too often my love of people is an abstract, theoretical love. I frequently think about what it will take to get “more people around the table” in the sense of making my ministries and my work more participatory, more democratic. But rarely do I make it as simple as just making sure everyone is literally invited to be around an actual table. My desire for hospitality rarely comes down to the details of making sure everyone has a chair that fits and enough elbow room. However, these mundane details are in many ways the actual work of hospitality.

Dorothy Day once wrote in The Catholic Worker newspaper, “Paperwork, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens – these things, too, are the works of peace.” No great work on behalf of the Kingdom is ever accomplished without a lot of little tasks along the way. As they say of the devil, the Gospel is in the details.

So our table is on the way. It’s a huge, farmhouse-style table that measures over 8 feet long when all is said and done, and it’s nearly going to burst the seams of the room. Next comes extending invitations to guests, both those we now count as friends and those we hope will become friends through the sharing of food, time, and stories. And this requires not only good intentions but also actually cooking and cleaning, holding doors and taking coats. And I hope through it all I can learn what my wife already intuitively understands – that if I want to do something as lofty as fill hearts with gladness, then I must be willing to do something as basic as fill cups with coffee.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Radical hospitality and responsible parenthood

While driving home from church last Sunday, I watched a man frantically chase a public bus for an entire city block, only to miss it by a few seconds. The bus stop he was trying to reach is just steps away from my house, and I waged an internal debate with myself as I pulled into my driveway: Should I turn around and pick him up?

On the one hand, he was a stranger, a male stranger, and I was in the car with my two young daughters. I didn’t know if he was intoxicated, mentally ill, or violent, and my first instinct as a mother is to protect my children from any potential harm. On the other hand, it was cold and rainy, and I knew the next bus wouldn’t arrive for at least another hour. It would be so easy for me to give him a ride half a mile up the road to intercept his bus, saving him a great deal of time (and sogginess). As campy as they were, those ubiquitous WWJD? bracelets from my youth certainly did drive home a point!

Photo courtesy of freeimages.com
Photo courtesy of freeimages.com

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it.  Hebrews 13:2

After hemming and hawing for a few more moments, I finally backed out of my driveway and pulled up next to the man. Although he was surprised and initially suspicious of my offer, we ended up having a very nice, brief conversation together. When we arrived at the bus stop, he thanked me for “proving that there are still good people in this world.”

My three-year-old had remained silent during the five-minute ride, but as soon as the man stepped out of our car, she was bursting with questions. The experience opened the door to a fruitful discussion about the privilege of owning a vehicle, the need to look for opportunities to help others, and the practicalities of being a follower of Jesus.

“But, Mama,” she asked, “how could Jesus give someone a ride when there weren’t any cars where He lived?”

This is just a small example of one of the greatest struggles my husband and I share as parents: How do we answer Jesus’ call to radical hospitality, while honoring our primary responsibility to protect our children?

Before we were parents, my husband and I worked extensively with the homeless community in Chicago, even inviting a man experiencing homelessness to sleep at our apartment when he missed the evening deadline for his shelter.

I wonder: Would we issue the same invitation now?  How could we?  How could we not?

I do not want to use motherhood as an excuse for staying complacently in my comfort zone, but I also want to safeguard my daughters from injury and trauma. So how and where do we draw the line between nurturing those who depend on us to keep them secure, and welcoming the stranger into our cars, homes, and lives?

How do we reconcile responsible parenthood and radical hospitality?

I wish there were an easy –or even a single– answer to this question. I know, though, that much like parenthood and simple living, each family’s response requires personal discernment and no small amount of humility.

May we parents all pray for one another, then, that we will not allow our legitimate desire to protect our children from danger to blind us to the many opportunities we have to entertain angels … or to feed the hungry Christ in disguise.

Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s and mom to a three-year-old and one-year-old. She writes from the Seattle area where–especially in the winter–the need for radical hospitality is evident and abundant.