A Year At The Table: The In’s and Out’s of Being at the Table

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—The Odyssey. 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?”

Sign at A Place at the Table restaurant showing that in 2019 12,559 meals were given out of 48,027 total meals. There were 27,396 #PayItForwards, equivalent to $158,549. Volunteers contributed 26,599 hours.