Throughout history communion has been wrought with conflict. Heated debate focused on:
Who can participate?
Who can officiate?
What’s required to prepare for communion?
What elements are used?
What process occurs in those who partake?
Is Christ in the host (bread) or only there with his “real presence?”
Is communion necessary for salvation?
Through the centuries, communion was deemed so important that groups of worshipers split or refused to worship together over their differences. Luther and Zwingli met to agree on the meaning of communion and, by doing so, unite German and Swiss reform movements. But they failed. In fact, emotions ran so high that, in parting, Luther refused to shake Zwingli’s hand.
Our visit to Christian base communities in El Salvador showed me that the questions above miss the point. There people celebrated communion creatively and joyfully, then got busy being the body of Christ, helping those on the fringes and working for social justice.
Communion in the San José Villanueva Christian base community, where pound cake served as the communion element.
Celebration of communion in the San Ramón Christian base community, where birthday cake served as the communion element.
The key question then is: What happens after communion? However we practice communion, what is the result of remembering Jesus Christ, of being in his presence, or of partaking of his body? So here are the important questions about communion:
Are we feeding the hungry? Are we visiting those in prison? Are we caring for the sick? Are we welcoming the excluded? Are we rooting out systemic injustice? Are we peacemakers?
In her article, “Communion—a brief historical/theological summary,” Sara Wenger Shank writes, “they gathered to break bread together and scattered to offer that ‘bread’ to the world. Outsiders were invited in. The ‘supper’ was a participation not only in Jesus’ death, but also an encounter with his living presence.”
Our short time in El Salvador left me with a lot to process and a lot to reflect on, much of which I haven’t even tried to begin to put into words. I can’t honestly say that I really put much thought into Communion before our congregation started asking questions and making it a part of regular conversation. It’s a routine practice that I had simply taken for granted having grown up going to church regularly. I noticed different variances as I got older and found my “home church” in several different denominations over the years, but usually found myself taking a quick sip of wine from a tiny plastic cup while trying to think of the recent mistakes I made and needed to repent of.
Angel and Melissa with their hosts in Colón
Traditional hot breakfast outside Colón chapel
El Salvador was the first time that I began to see that Communion is more than a rote taking of two elements. It’s more than mini plastic cups of grape juice with stale crackers or goblets of wine with a pinch of bread. It’s a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice and remembering that we are part of the active body of Christ. It is a time to remember that we are called to continuously work to meet one another’s needs and sometimes to sacrifice personal things in order to do so. In the Base Communities, the people shared much of what they had, and they shared each other’s burdens. It was no different with us. They provided the group of us, strangers in a foreign land, with a place to stay. The offered us pupusas (bread) and corn coffee (wine). They let us into their homes and into their lives. They gave us what they had to meet our needs, an example of when Christ gave what he had to meet our need of closeness with God.
There seems to true blending between hospitality and communion. I was astounded by the warm hospitality we were extended in the small Central American country. I found it a stark contrast to the superficial hospitality that the US south is known for. In a sermon preached in August 2019, Melissa Florer-Bixler said something along the lines of “within hospitality we meet the Divine.” In El Salvador, I saw a Jesus and a faith I had never previously seen or felt. I tasted a Communion different from any other before, an experience that will probably never be quite replicated again.
My main takeaway from going to El Salvador is the radical hospitality that the members of the base communities showed us. The way they opened up their homes to us and shared what they had made me realize a few things about my own goals in life. For the past couple months, I’ve been dealing with a bit of an existential crisis. Figuring out where I want to go from here and what would make me truly happy has been a subject of contention for me, in terms of my career. Meeting my siblings in El Salvador helped me realize that my one true goal is having a home with doors I can open to anyone who might need a place to rest and a warm meal. I might have realized that without them, but it would have taken me a heck of a lot longer!
So much to say about El Salvador, it’s hard to know where to begin. My heart is filled with the beauty and generosity of spirit of everyone we met and with the sheer horror of the tragedies that have taken place in their country.
Our delegation was so warmly welcomed by each of the three Christian base communities in which we stayed. Rural families living with very little, opened up their homes and hammocks, sharing food and stories about their experiences prior to, during, and since El Salvador’s gruesome civil war.
It was hard not to feel overwhelmed by the collective history of the Salvadoran people, none of whom, it seemed, hadn’t been touched by the atrocities which took place. Most everyone we met had lost family members and friends during the twelve years of violence. Hearing countless stories about the senseless killing of civilians, the murder of Jesuit priests, and the assassination of Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero for practicing—and teaching—Liberation Theology, really hit home. The fact that many were labeled communists and seen as a threat, simply for seeking freedom from political, social, and economic oppression—was particularly poignant, given RMC’s mission. In my short time in our church community, I have witnessed the commitment of the congregation to work for social justice, to join with the traditionally marginalized and disenfranchised, and to help give voice to those who, in our society, have a hard time being heard. A mural in the meeting/church space of Comunidad Colón, the first ecclesial base community we visited, summed it up perfectly: “Una iglesia que no se une a los pobres no es verdadera iglesia de Jesucristo.” A church which does not align itself with the poor is not a true church of Jesus Christ.
To meet the Salvadoran people, both in urban and rural environments, and to bear witness to their experiences, was something I will never forget. When visiting the town of El Mozote, which (with the exception of one survivor) was completely wiped out during a Salvadoran military-led massacre, I asked our guide how those, like herself, who had previously fled to Honduras, could return to a place of such unbearable sadness. She answered, “La vida continua. Los niños siguen naciendo; hay que seguir viviendo.” Life goes on, children keep being born, you have to keep living.
And this is what I experienced, time and again: Salvadorans persevering and sharing their history, while looking toward their future. The current social and political landscape of the country is not without its problems; while the war is over, the struggle for social, economic, and political justice continue. There are those who mourn now, for friends and family members—new generations of desaparecidos—lost during northward migrations. There is much left to be understood and to be done. In thinking about A Year at the Table, it became increasingly clear that for many living in Christian base communities, the practice of communion is as much about solidarity and a reaffirmation of a devotion to Christ’s teachings as anything else. Whether it was gathering over corn coffee and tortillas, a birthday cake or a shared meal, the commitment to uplifting and supporting each other, working together to move through difficulties, was palpable.
My feeling is that, in our church community, with our wealth, resources, and relative privilege, we have a tremendous opportunity to align ourselves with our Salvadoran siblings and to affirm, yet again, that we are a church for those without a voice, in the service of Jesus Christ.
by Zinith Barbee A blog entry in response to our “A Year at the Table” series. January 21, 2020
The table is an image that is integral to hospitality. It is the critical prop in “the greatest story ever told.” In our services, it reflects the meaning of the Last Supper. Hospitality at the table is a foundational custom depicted in seminal literature of our civilization—TheOdyssey. In this epic story, hospitality is copiously described, including consequences of abusing it. Bread and wine are among typical foods in the age of the gospel. They also often symbolize the regenerative body and blood of Jesus. Hospitality at the table got its deepest meaning as communion.
Communion is the one rite about which one might expect unity. Instead, practices and beliefs regarding it widely vary. One variation is “open communion” for any churchgoer attending service. Another variation is “closed communion” for only the communing church. Visiting churchgoers are excluded. Another variation could be described as “no communion.” Where this is practiced, the bread and wine are passed but untouched by anyone in the congregation. More differences exist. However, regardless of variations, the common denominator in communion is the ultimate question: “Who’s in and who’s out.”
The answer to this fateful question determined the future of whole continents, as students of the Doctrine of Discovery learn. To European Christians discovering and colonizing the Americas, prosperity felt ordained to “who’s in”—baptized people like them—while poverty got bequeathed to “who’s out.” The dispossession of indigenous people, the denied humanity of enslaved people, and the disadvantage of exploited people is predicated on the institutionalization of “Who’s in and who’s out.” Thus began our nation of “haves” and “have nots.”
Many of the “have nots” are marginalized people. For them arose ministries—all rooted in the very doctrine justifying dispossession, denial, and disadvantage. This monumental paradox reverberates throughout society. Marginalized people are the common denominator in social issues such as food insecurity and food desertification. The question “who’s in and who’s out” is a bedeviling irony in a civilization with a gospel about ending devilry.
I tell people that A Place At The Table is a ministry that “acts like a café.” This invariably leads to explaining how and why A Place At The Table is unlike traditional ministries and conventional cafés revitalizing downtown Raleigh. To be sure, A Place At The Table is part of the revitalization. It could also be said to be part of a revolution.
One way our wealthy, industrial nation sustains marginalized people is the soup kitchen. Mistaken for that, a revitalizing downtown did not initially want A Place At The Table among its chic cafés. Moreover, most eateries fail in their first years of operation. In a business community of pay-what-we-charge, A Place At The Table had much to debunk with its pay-what-you-can business plan.
A Place At The Table is a response to another ministry for people experiencing homelessness and hunger. In that ministry people also hungered for community and dignity. They complained about how society’s charity depersonalized and dehumanized them. “We’re throw-away people getting throw-away things,” I heard when I volunteered there too. I dismissed this sentiment as over-sensitivity about their plight until visiting another ministry whose operation even I called “herding cattle.” Inside a re-purposed warehouse, the ministered first got corralled into a fenced space. Here, they sat and waited through a 45-minute sermon. Then they got divided into small groups. One by one, each group got ushered through a fenced path leading to sequentially arranged corrals of used clothing, discarded furniture, and aged food.
At A Place At The Table, each time I volunteer to serve meals and clean tables, I remember living among the marginalized myself. I once resided in my car and worked in restaurants for the “fringe benefit” of one meal. Decades later, during months of job hunting after graduation from a university, I remember my shame when “raiding the table” for leftover food to take home after church fellowship meals. Today, disabled and retired after medical trauma, I am again out of the workforce that gave me purpose, identity, and a salary. Each time I volunteer, I think of how frightfully easy and quickly anyone can be homeless and hungry. Each time I volunteer, I am both minister and ministered.
It is taught that family is the unit of society. Not everyone has family. For spouses and children abused in the home, LGBTQ people ostracized by family, the formerly incarcerated without supportive family, immigrants far from home, and aged folk like me—labeled “elder orphans”—the unit of society has to be community.
Community is the ministry at A Place At The Table. Here, “haves” and “have nots” commit to hospitality where giving and receiving is not demeaning. The “rite of passage” is receiving a meal and a cup of coffee. Money is not the only currency. Busing tables, washing dishes, sweeping floors, and other contributions of “sweat” will “buy” a fresh, healthy, stylish meal as much as any dollar bill and change. Like Jesus at the Last Supper, the hosted become hosts.
In November 2016, the City of Raleigh passed a resolution to adopt a Charter for Compassion. Its Compassionate City Initiative is part of an international movement. The founder of this movement, Karen Armstrong, laments “religion’s collusion with empire.” She identifies cities as “the heart of industrial civilization” and where to begin creation of “networks of compassion.” Into such a network fits A Place At The Table. A reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer who covered filming of A Place At The Table by the nationally broadcast show, “Good Morning America,” described the café as an “experiment in the economy of kindness.” To this I add “economy of dignity” too.
Who’s in and who’s out? Returning from a long absence and finding ill-willed guests eating his family out its provisions, Odysseus famously massacres who does not belong. Symbolizing a turn from barbarity, at the Last Supper Jesus clarifies who does belong. To disciples bickering over each other’s stature in the ministry, Jesus asks, “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table?”
Our pastor invites us to communion: “This isn’t the table of the Mennonite Church; it isn’t Raleigh Mennonite’s table. It is Jesus’ table, and he invites all of us.” The piece of bread and a sip from the cup nourishes us to serve others, such as the food co-op at the Parkview Manor Senior Center, aptly named The Neighborhood Network. Our money helps them supplement their limited food resources with food from the Regional Food Bank every two weeks. The relationships we have with them are priceless.
The Society of St. Andrews Gleaning Organization extends our table giving us opportunity to glean in the fields of Wake County and neighboring counties. The farmers’ produce that can’t be sold is gleaned, harvested and delivered to Neighborhood Network, Urban Ministries Food Pantry and other places where food is scarce.
Christ’s table expands its reach. Food-4-Thought, a volunteer group, rescues food each weekend from Trader Joe’s and distributes fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and bread to about 90 households. The rescued fresh meat is shared with The Neighborhood Network. Christ’s table is abundant. Food-4-Thought uses our kitchen, refrigerators and freezer to store food.
Raleigh Mennonite’s financial gifts helped provide a week’s supply of groceries for 8,000 household’s from the Client Choice Food Pantry at Urban Ministries of Wake County. Additional food referrals are made to Catholic Charities.
Our local bakery, Yellow Dog Bread Company, shares their unsold items at the end of each day rather than throw them in the dumpster. We pick them up after hours and their abundance is shared with Urban Ministries Food Pantry, Love Wins Community Engagement Center, Neighborhood Network and Food-4-Thought.
Our little table expands to be part of the miracle of food in the city of Raleigh. The hungry and thirsty are welcome at Christ’s table.
Leah’s perspective on her involvement with Food for Thought:
“Food for Thought is where Trader Joe’s gets rid of all the food it cannot sell. And we give it away to people. I like being a part of it because it gets me out of the house. My whole family is a part of it. I think Jesus would be happy because we feed God’s people in need who no one cares about.”
Two people bring the bread and wine down the center Aisle and gives them to the Torch Bearer Acolytes, who place them on the table (not the altar) for the Priest. Another Acolyte assists the Priest with preparations. During the Jazz Mass the children are served first. The children (and parents of the very young) proceed up the steps before the alter, form a circle and receive the elements. Some have the Priest place the Eucharist on their tongues and take a sip of wine, others practice intinction.
When the children are finished they return to their seats and the choir is served at the rail before the alter. Then the ushers begin to allow adults and teenagers to proceed to the alter, row by row. The parishioners proceed to the rail before the alter, most kneel (a few may stand if kneeling is too difficult), placing right hand on top of left hand. The Priest and a Lay Eucharistic Minister place the wafer in each person’s right hand. Some have the Priest or Lay Eucharistic Minister place the Eucharist on their tongues and take a sip of wine, other only receive the wafer, and others practice intinction. After someone sips the wine, the lip of the goblet is wiped with a napkin. After the row at the alter has been served they rise and depart to the sides back to their seats and the next group proceeds forward to kneel, etc.
Hymns are sung during the celebration.
During the Contemplative Mass there is no special circle for children, and there is no singing. Otherwise the procedure is the same.
What connected with me?
I appreciate the ancient Eucharistic Liturgy. We used a form of it in weekly communion in our Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Saying the same words each week (soon from memory) allows one to focus on the experience, the sense of unity with others and from time to time to encounter the ineffable.
I deeply appreciate celebrating with and being served by people of color. Sometimes it’s almost an overwhelming feeling – infused with wonder and gratitude. And it brings more crisply to mind the reality of the universal church.
It is moving to see our Grandchildren serving as acolytes, intimately involved in the Eucharistic Celebration, and celebrating with them and our Daughter and her husband.
They serve wine, not grape juice.
What didn’t connect with me?
Nothing really. But it can sometimes be a challenge to get to the right page in the Book of Common Prayer.
How could our practice be enriched by what you saw?
I have always said that I’d like to celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday. Even if nothing else in the service connects, there’s another opportunity with a weekly Eucharistic Celebration.
For me consistent use of the ancient liturgy is great. But I know others (who have not had years of experience with it) think it’ll be boring and become an empty rote exercise, failing to encounter mystical moments.
by David Rohrer A blog entry in response to our “A Year at the Table” series. November 11, 2019
Last summer on two consecutive Sundays, Hans, Ann, Rosene and David celebrated communion with our brothers and sisters at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Oaxaca, Mexico. The service was conducted in English. The church has no assigned priest; rather it depends on visiting clergy to conduct worship.
After both services, we gathered in the courtyard for light refreshments and fellowship. What a joy to see warm smiles and hear pleasant conversation in a mix of English and Spanish. How grateful we were to be welcomed as strangers into this community of faith and to be invited to partake of the Lord’s supper.
This was the official kick-off retreat for our year’s study of table fellowship and communion practices at RMC. We looked at some ways God called God’s people to table fellowship and reflected on the ways we’ve experienced table fellowship and communion in the past and the present.
August 24, 2019 Folks brought side dishes to share and we enjoyed locally-sourced, sustainably-raised pork. It was cooked in a smoker all day long with the help of one of our member’s dads who came in from western NC to help out. The weather was a bit wet, so we ate inside.
Rosene and I joined our Maronite friends today for a Taste of Lebanon, the first community festival given by Saint Sharbel Maronite Catholic Church. After purchasing our za’atar pie, hummus, kibbeh, kofta, grape leaves, etc., we spoke to Father Robert Farah about the celebration. “Before we opened today, we met to bless the food and the people who would be coming. After the event closes, we will meet to give thanks,” he said.
The Maronite Church is officially known as the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch. According to Father Robert, 90% of their worship locally is conducted in English. Some of their hymns and prayers are in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples. Maronite communion practices reflect those of the larger Catholic church. Due to emigration since the 19th century, two thirds of their 3,000,000 members live outside of the Middle East.