Everyone Needs a Place at the Table

by Zach Spidel

*Reprinted from the Fall 2015 edition of Shalom!

AS BROTHER JOSE gave us instructions for serving the meal, he emphasized several things: how important it was that we remain calm even when the crush of people began to make their way inside for what might be their only meal of the day, that no one but servers were to be let through the large locked doors at the front of the church’s undercroft before the noon meal, and that we were to not merely hand them food, but to treat the homeless men and women we were serving like the patrons of an upscale dining establishment. We were to make them feel welcome, valued, and catered to. They were not a burden, and though we might be a charity, we were not to treat these hungry people like “charity-cases.” They were sons and daughters of the King.

Brother Jose had intimidated me with his description of the large and often unruly crowds of needy people who would be streaming through the doors of this Bronx church in a short while. So, as I wiped off tables and chairs, I kept glancing toward those doors, through which I could already hear a gathering crowd. Thus it was my heart leapt into my throat when I heard the doors creak open a full half hour early and watched as about a dozen disheveled people shambled into the main room. I could tell immediately that most of these people were either mentally handicapped or mentally ill. Some shuffled as they walked and most wore old and tattered clothing. As they walked in, there was no one else in the main room to address them. Brother Jose had run out on an errand and the rest of the Messiah College students on this service trip with me were back in the kitchen.

I approached the group unsure of what to say or how to say it, afraid that some of them might be unstable enough to make a scene if told to go back out, and concerned about how they got in to begin with. I halted them halfway through the main room and mumbled something apologetically about the meal not being for another half hour. My comment and blocking body posture were met only with confused faces and blank stares. No one seemed to comprehend my point and one man actually just began to walk around me. I felt a twinge of panic as he bypassed me; I hadn’t asked for this duty and didn’t know what I should do now or if it really mattered enough for me to do anything at all.

As I silently and anxiously deliberated about my options, the doors swung open yet again as Brother Jose rushed into the church running behind schedule. His eyes lit up when he saw the early diners and he called out their names as he slapped high-fives with them or embraced them each in turn. I was confused. Brother Jose had been so adamant about no early admittances, but he seemed positively delighted by these early birds. Seeing my confusion, Jose came over to me.

“These, my brother, are your fellow volunteers,” he said, with a smile and a mischievous glint in his eyes.

And sure enough, I watched as the whole lot of them moved with familiarity toward the kitchen where they all donned aprons, just like the one I was wearing, and set to work finishing preparations. These brothers and sisters were from a large group home a few blocks over and they came every week to help with this meal. A few minutes later a group of women arrived to help as well; they lived in a community for recovering addicts, most of them being former prostitutes. They too donned aprons as they joked loudly with one another in their boisterous Bronx voices and took their places alongside us fresh-faced college students from central Pennsylvania.

We servers – the college students, drug addicts, prostitutes, and mentally handicapped group home residents – all circled up for prayer just before noon. Brother Jose, unexpectedly, turned to me and asked if I would lead us. After a moment of hesitation, I closed my eyes and began to pray. I do not remember what I said to God in that moment. I doubt anyone else could either, since my words were rendered mostly unintelligible due to my tears.

I was crying because, once again, God and his kingdom had proven more beautiful than my heart could bear. My chest ached from the goodness of this moment, of this particular circle of disciples. Who else but Jesus could bring together this mix of races, and backgrounds, and stations of life?  Who else but Jesus would make of recovering addicts, and the disheveled group home residents, not just passive receptacles of other people’s aid, but servants themselves – full citizens of the kingdom and key participants in this ministry? My heart burst with love for the wild menagerie of people around me and for the Shepherd who had brought us all together.

I knew that we belonged together because we belonged to Jesus. I knew that this was what the church was always and everywhere meant to be like, and I yearned for that divine intention to become a reality more often. I prayed for his will to be done and his kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.

Immediately after that prayer, with tears still in my eyes, I couldn’t help but make several slow passes with my eyes over the circle of people around me – soaking in this beautiful sight. And I knew that while in some ways I had never been more out of place or out of my element, in another and more important way, I had never been more at home.

Zach Spidel is the pastor of The Shpeherd’s Table congregation in Dayton, OH.