the politics of eating together

Last month University Hill Congregation hosted the Native Ministries Consortium to dinner. Every summer students and teachers from Native communities across Canada, the United States and beyond gather at the Vancouver School of Theology to learn together. The consortium has been gathering since 1985. We have been hosting dinner with the Native Ministries Consortium since 1998. This is how it came to be.

In the fall of 1997 we at University Hill Congregation found ourselves struggling to know how to respond to a difficult and painful legal trial. Native students who had been sexually abused in a United Church Residential School were seeking damages. Lawyers for The United Church of Canada were seeking to limit the church's liability. This meant that victims of abuse were being questioned about the veracity of their claims. The court case was heard in Vancouver, Nanaimo and Prince Rupert. In response to the testimony of pain and the pain of the cross-examination a number of United Church congregation organized meals for the abused students who were bearing witness to their suffering. When the court would break for lunch they would be invited to a local United Church to be fed and heard. The meals were intended as a form of counter-testimony to the experience of cross-examination by the church's lawyers. The hospitality offered was intended as a sign that the church might stand with, not over against, the victims. The meals were powerful experiences of anger and sadness, of grief and lament, but also of hope and grace, forgiveness and healing.

Those meals gave us an idea. We were wondering how to embody our desire for a new relationship with Native people. We remembered that every summer Native leaders gathered at VST, our worship home. We realized that if we arrived in a Native community for two weeks in the summer we would surely receive an invitation to dinner. We thought that we might host a meal as a sign of our desire for reconciliation. But before proceeding with the invitation some of our elders asked us to think carefully about our intention. They said that too often in the past congregations had begun a relationship with Native communities only to forget about it a year or two later. They said that the Native communities remembered that the promise of a new relationship had not been kept. They said that we should not start hosting a meal if we did not intend to continue for as long as the Native Ministry Consortium meets and our congregation exists. We decided to make that promise and have passed along that promise to those new to University Hill since then. This summer marked our fifteenth annual dinner together.

When we gather we have a problem. We do not own a church building which means that we do not own any dishes or cutlery. One of our members came up with a solution in that first year. She suggested that each table be hosted by one or two of us and that the hosts set the table with dishes and cutlery from home. We have continued this tradition ever since. Our guests often note that this is what happens in their communities as well. Since the kitchen is small we bring salads and desserts from home and then cook up hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill outside.

It is a festive atmosphere with wonderful energy. But it wasn't always that way. In the first years there was fear and apprehension in the air. Hosts and guests wondered how things would go. The testimony of the victims of abuse was in the news. Old memories were surfacing. It was a time of much pain, sadness and anger. Members of the church were feeling defensive, often seeking to avoid the pain and trouble. Something as simple as a meal was not so simple. Eating together meant being together, receiving one another. If politics is about the formation of the "polis" - the community - then these meals are transformative political acts. 

Over time the initial fears and apprehensions have given way to expressions of joy and reunion when we gather. Those new to the meal are told the story of its inception and welcomed into our journey towards a newly reconciled relationship. From the beginning we have celebrated the dinner as an Agape Feast. Reminiscent of early church celebrations of the love of Christ this dinner begins with singing and scripture and prayer. The story of the feeding of the five thousand is read. Then five loaves are broken and shared with everyone who is present. We are reminded of the abundance of God, an abundance far beyond all expectation, an abundance that feeds and sustains us all.

The Agape Feast is similar to, but distinct from, the Sacrament of the Eucharist. It reminds us that we are united by our common calling as followers of Jesus. It locates our meal as a sign of God's kingdom come, pointing to God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. While it is only one meal held once a year its power is multiplied because the story is told in our congregation and in Native communities throughout the year. It leads me to wonder about our celebration of the Eucharist and about the ways in which this meal of bread and wine forms a new community - a new polis - and is, as a result a crucial political act in our life together.

It reminds me of the book "Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ" by Bill Cavanaugh. The book is a study of the way in which the Eucharist became the key act of the church's resistance to torture by the state in Chile in the 1970's. Cavanaugh documents the ways in which the church initially failed in its capacity to speak out against torture and oppression. He then describes how the Eucharist formed a community of martyrs - witnesses - who belonged to Christ's body and so made visible the crucifixion named torture. They did this by gathering in public outside a known location of torture and announcing that torture was going on there, before dispersing again into the streets. Cavanaugh calls this "performing the Body of Christ" (pp. 253 ff). The performance of the body of Christ also included the excommunication- the refusal of communion - to known torturers. Such torturers could not be received as members of the Body of Christ until they ceased torturing the Body of Christ. "To participate in the Eucharist", writes Cavanaugh, "is to live inside God's imagination. It is to be caught up into what is really real, the body of Christ" (p. 279).

The political dimension of eating together as Christians is crucial to the church's witness. Choosing to eat the bread and drink the wine with one another is a political decision. As Cavanaugh writes: "The torturer extracts a confession of the unlimited power of the state. The Eucharist requires a confession that Jesus is Lord of all, and that the body belongs to him" (p. 279). Lately I have noticed that there is often a lack of clarity about this decision when the Sacrament of Communion is celebrated in the United Church. A genuine desire to welcome everyone - to be radically inclusive - has regularly led to a wide open invitation to the Lord's Table, with no sense that there might be a reason to say "no" to the invitation. At a recent meeting of BC Conference the presider at the ordination service made the invitation to communion by asking the gathered congregation: "Who is welcome at the table?" to which everyone responded "Everyone". Yes, of course, Jesus invites everyone. He invites everyone to die to their life as it is and to pick up their cross, their death, and follow him. This is what it means to sit down at his table. It means to say "yes" to being his follower, it means to name him as your leader - Christ / King - and to commit to living his cruciform way of suffering love. Receiving communion is a decision with crucial implications. Those who accept the invitation say "yes" to being included among those whose lives are disciplined - discipled - by Jesus. Those who decline the invitation opt out of an obligation to be obedient to Jesus and, in so doing, exclude themselves. The meal is not about inclusion or exclusion, it is about deciding to follow - or not to follow - Jesus. The Eucharist is not simply, as some put it, bread for the journey. The sacrament is the covenant promise, the wedding vow, the political decision to stand with Jesus and his people in the face of oppression, hunger and despair.

Hosting the Native Ministries Consortium to dinner each summer over the past fifteen years has taught us something about the political power of eating together in the name of Jesus Christ. One of those learnings began the first time we sat down with one another and has continued every year since. When the meal ended we who were hosting expected that it was over. We were accustomed to getting up from dessert, cleaning up and saying good-night. Instead, our guests began to come forward. They came as representatives from their various peoples, homes, nations. They said thank-you. They told us something of their story. Sometimes it was a story of hurt and trouble, told through pain and tears. Sometimes it was a story of forgiveness and of hope, told with laughter and joy. And there was singing - traditional songs in Native tongue and gospel songs, sung in full voice. The stories, the testimony and the singing went on far longer than anything we had known. It went on until the evening had become night. We realized then that the meal begins with us as hosts. Then, just as the food is put away, we become the guests and our guests become the hosts. So it continues every time that we gather. Grace is shared, back and forth. Jesus is teaching us to give and to receive the abundant gifts that are present for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

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