Learning to set the table again?…who would have thought?
As the pandemic has reconfigured how we serve our communities, these two food program leaders rethink what it means to be hospitable and give some practical suggestions on how to approach returning to hosting those in our communities in the midst of a new normal, one step at a time.
Two of our deepest needs are for safety and connection. Through the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to prioritize safety, giving up most of our practices of connecting with friends and neighbours. In our community food and support programs, we replaced ceramic mugs for disposable dishes, and replaced sitting down together with line-ups and distancing.
We miss the joy of feasting together! We miss being able to share with each other the deeper needs that the pandemic has worsened or revealed. We regret the environmental and financial cost of single-use dishes and bags. Not least, we long to steward once again a place where participants can contribute their gifts and shape the program to meet their needs and hopes.
The good news is that we can now start planning a return to sit-down hospitality, though it will take us working together to determine when and how to do so safely for guests and hosts alike. While we are receiving direction from our local government on how to gather and visit restaurants and other businesses, it may be wise for safety’s sake to have our community meals lag behind the food service industry. And we have to adapt these evolving guidelines to fit the particular circumstances of each unique program.
Emerging from pandemic challenges will likely mean a season of hybrid programs where we offer both sit-down and take-out meals, or grocery hampers and some other supports. Some guests (and volunteers) will take longer to feel comfortable being out in public again, let alone in crowds. Perhaps more than fear, people have experienced deep grief this past year. So much has been lost during the pandemic, so many people have been lost to the opioid epidemic, the personal and collective trauma of racism compounded afresh with the recent discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools – these and other hard aspects of this past season require us we to operate with extra measures of grace and generosity. New patterns will take weeks, perhaps months, of adjusting.
Start simple and let it grow
Instead of a full sit down meal, maybe start with keeping the take out containers and optional sit down for those that want to stick around and mingle.
Practice clear and transparent communication
Print simple and large signs or handouts informing of expectations and upcoming changes or processes that will keep people safe.
Balance working toward goals with rolling with whatever comes up
Establish or review what is most important for your program and take small steps to towards that. If praying is important, consider having a volunteer write and encouraging prayer for participants and print it off for everyone to receive when they receive their meal.
Do not be discouraged or quit a practice when someone grumbles
We are all uncomfortable and uncertain right now and with that comes complaints or concerns. Take time to listen and honor them but also hold them with open hands. There can be some good wisdom in these concerns, but they also might just be someone saying that they want to be heard and seen.
Our situation is fluid – go with the flow as you keep your eye on where you want ultimately to be. Recognize that hospitality can be tiring (we need rest), nevertheless joy comes from deep engagement and reciprocity of care. Returning to or introducing more hospitable, dignifying practices of sharing food may require us to retrain or to find new volunteers. We might need to develop new, written protocols and get them approved by church leadership, especially with regard to how many people can be in a space and having a log with contact information for everyone who comes inside. All of this may take longer than we expect, and likely longer than it would have before COVID.
As the health authorities give more direction in the coming days, we look forward to sharing more ideas with you in this newsletter, as well as convening roundtable discussions. Stay tuned and keep up the great work!
What does a church that’s been serving meals to the poor in the city for two decades have to learn about hospitality?
A lot! If we allow the Creator to subvert our ways of extending and receiving hospitality.
In the gospel of Luke, meals are extremely important to understanding Jesus. For example: Jesus joins a feast with a crowd of tax-collectors initiated by Levi (5:27-32); he eats with Martha and Mary (10:38-42); he often dines with Pharisees (11:37-54 and 14:1-24), etc. In these stories Jesus, the man without a home, appears as the supreme guest in need of hospitality.
Meals are the context of Jesus’ ministry, and they are also a powerful image of his teachings. In his parables, food is something that cannot be denied to a travelling guest (11:5-8); and the return of the prodigal son is celebrated with a great banquet of welcoming back to the family (15:23-24). Jesus also uses meals to subvert (turn upside down) the hospitality expectations of his culture: “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, those who won’t be able to return the favor.” (14:12)
But Jesus doesn’t merely teach about subverting cultural norms. Let’s look at one story that takes place around a meal in order to understand how Jesus lives out his own teaching as he subverts the roles of host and guest in those meals. The resurrected Jesus encounters two discouraged disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-53).
Jesus begins by walking alongside the travelers. The supreme guest was used to meeting people on the streets, on the roads. Jesus opens the conversation with a genuine question: what are you two talking about? What’s been going on in the city? If we are honestly asking the question, we might not only get a report of the news, but we might also get to hear from the people out there about their fears and their hopes, broken as they are.
Telling stories matters at a small scale and at a large one. Stories shape us, just as they shaped Jesus. Latin American theologians often emphasize that God is the Lord of history. Jesus actions confirm this as he retells history in light of his story. Jesus accepts the hospitality the disciples offer him and sits at their table. Finally, Jesus breaks bread. It is this action that finally opens the eyes of the disciples, as they become the guests at the table.
I love this story because the characters in it show us that hearing and living out the Gospel is not only an intellectual experience. It involves the body in motion, acknowledging emotions, telling stories, extending hospitality, and breaking bread. Salvation tastes like a lovingly prepared meal; salvation feels like when we are gathered with family, friends, and sojourners, and relationships flourish.
The story of the Road to Emmaus shows how Jesus turns hospitality upside down. As one Latino theologian, Eric Barreto, explains: It is the two disciples who invite Jesus – someone they found on the road – to join them for a meal; they are the hosts. And yet Jesus, who starts as the guest, takes over the duties of the host immediately. By breaking the bread, Jesus blurs the very lines between host and guest.
Too often in Christian communities, hospitality is limited to how we welcome others. That is, in too many churches, hospitality is something we offer others, not something we are willing to receive. In many churches, hospitality tends to be a program more than an identity, a way of life. Jesus’s hospitality shakes us up, making hosts of guests and guests of hosts.
After serving our city for over two decades, we at Street Ministries (First Baptist Church) are relearning that to be Christ-like hosts, we must learn to be Christ-like guests. Our volunteers and I are thankful for how much the leaders and volunteers of the Maundy Café are teaching us about being Christ-like hosts.
A Training Worth Attending
UGM’s Church Relations is releasing their newly developed 6 session course designed to provide a foundational knowledge for staff and volunteers to better care for their neighbours experiencing poverty, homelessness, and addiction in the community. Sign up for all 6 and receive a UGM Communities of Care Certificate.
- Poverty & Community Development: Sept 22, 2:30-4:00pm
- Radical Hospitality & Compassionate Pastoral Care: Sept 29, 2:30-4:00pm
- Mental Health Awareness & Trauma Informed Care: October 6, 2:30-4:00pm
- Boundaries & De-Escalating Hostility: Oct 13th, 2:30-4:00pm
- Advocacy & Support: Oct 20th, 2:30-4:00pm
- Shelters & Emergency Weather Response (EWR) ProgramsOct 27th, 2:30-4:00pm
A Resource Worth Reading
As Food Programs restart and revamp, UGM is giving out “This toolkit which offers practical, spiritual, and theological inspiration gleaned from decades of experience running meal programs….(it) will help you and your congregation extend and receive God’s restorative hospitality while engaging in broader food justice movements.”