Come to the Table

 

Shelly Sellepack

 

 

Dinnertime was always rowdy at the Open Door, a homeless shelter for young adult men in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  As directors and houseparents, my husband and I had the sometimes overwhelming task of cooking for up to eighteen hungry young men, but it was always a pleasure to shut off the lights in the kitchen, forget about the greasy stove and gather around steamy casseroles.  It was in those moments that we were reminded of our common hunger, our common need for nourishment.

            One evening, our fifteen-month-old daughter Audrey was snugly pulled up to the table in her high chair, observing the gathering and settling that occurs before dinner, when Jonathan pulled out the chair next to her and sat down.  Jonathan, a big man with skin the color of rich, French-roast coffee, had been staying with us for several weeks, working hard to curb his drinking, keep his job, and find affordable housing.  Upon settling in his chair, Jonathan turned to Audrey, leaned in close, and began speaking to her in a soft, lilting tone that belied his size.  And Audrey returned his tones with a song of her own, reaching up to lay a gentle, cream colored palm upon his dark face, stroking his smooth skin.

            Time stood still, and the moment was filled with truth and beauty and grace.  I was struck first by the truth that the most basic language is the one spoken to a child – any child of any culture in any time.  Any human being on the face of this earth who desires to communicate with a child will lean close, look deep into wide, trusting eyes, and half murmur, half sing.  I was then struck by the pure recognition of difference that both saw in the other, and by the almost holy recognition that difference could be appreciated without losing sight of the common thread of humanity.  Regardless of nationality or creed, sex or class, regardless of all the differences that tend to categorize and divide into “us versus them,” life is a banquet, and basic humanity brings us all to the same table.

            Yet somehow, somewhere along the line, a global food fight has erupted.  Some don’t seem to have enough on their plates, while others will have their fill with plenty to waste.  Someone has used the wrong manners and several have arrived wearing the wrong clothes.  Many of us complain about the guest list, forgetting that it is our common need that got us all invited in the first place.  For too long, we have been conditioned for self-interest and indifference, turning our backs on truth for the sake of right.

            And who can blame us?  In a culture of “your way, right away”; “you’re worth it”; “just do it”, it is easy to understand the inevitable clashes that erupt from pushing our own agendas.  This culture woos us from a young age, romancing us into believing that “my needs are the only ones that matter,” and that “my position is the only one worth listening to.”  Yet the constant pounding of fist on table, shouting about me and mine, proves not that we are superior to any other, but, remarkably, that we hunger deeply for a sense of community.  Odd that what we most long for – understanding and fair treatment from others – is the very thing we are so unwilling to give.  Instead, our culture urges us to satisfy this hunger with the empty carbs of status and money and power, and in gorging ourselves on these trappings, we fail to really look into the eyes of the human being sitting across that table.  Our differences are astronomical, yes – or so they may seem.  But it is our sameness that ought to make us pause.  It is our commonality that ought to gather us quietly around the table.  It is our humanity that causes us to peer into the eyes of our enemy only to discover he is our brother. 

            Any kind of lasting peace, then, will require a shift in focus, a redirection in our ways of thinking.  We must tune out the siren’s call to self-gratification and listen instead to the music of Other with a capital “O.”  In our puffed-up culture of word-making, it is indeed rare to find someone who will listen with an open mind, searching for something recognizable in another’s story.  When we hear and truly listen, look and truly see, we turn from regarding others as things, disposable and expendable, grouped together, possibly pitied, and easily ignored.  Instead we regard others as human, fragile and irreplaceable, each uniquely different, yet somehow connected by blood and bone.

            I recently finished watching the unforgettable movie Crash.  In one scene, a man of Persian descent points a gun at a Hispanic man whom he believes to be his enemy.  When the trigger is pulled and the smoke clears, however, the shooter’s eyes are opened, and he no longer sees an adversary standing before him, but a father whose little girl calls him daddy.  The Persian man is overwhelmed with the truth of their commonality.  Their differences, though abundant and significant, fall by the wayside in the light of this one word, “daddy,” which names them both.  We are not called, then, to forget our differences and gloss over our struggles.  Instead, we have a responsibility to suppress the desire to conquer and obliterate the different, and to instead sit down over a meal and marvel at the common need for bread and wine.

            Finally, awakening our minds to the humanity of those around us will never be complete.  The process of shrugging off the pulls of this culture and acquainting ourselves with the commonalities of those around us is a lifelong struggle.  So we lovingly measure the right amounts of understanding and responsibility.  We mix it, knead it, let it rest and bake it.  Then we sit across from our neighbor and break bread together, enjoying the warm goodness of the peace we’ve created.  But though we’ve eaten our fill, we will still awaken the next morning with the gnarl of hunger in our bellies, and we must undertake the process all over again.  So we sidle up to the table once more, following the wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi, who advised that we “seek not so much to be understood as to understand.”  Although variety and diversity are the spice of life, only when we acknowledge that it is our commonalities that are really more remarkable – that we are actually all of the same stock – will we find ourselves in true community.  Then we will see the humanity in others, then we will see the humanity in ourselves, and only then will our deep hunger truly be satisfied.