by Meridith Owensby
I’ve been thinking about Jesus lately, about how lame and awkward his many shared meals must have been. How excited was Zacchaeus’ family to host the whole roaming band after Jesus announced they were coming to dinner? What did they discuss since their previous encounter had been tree-related? Not exactly the finest meet-cute.
Or how about the jostling for position, to sit literally or figuratively on Jesus’ right? How embarrassing to have James and John’s mom show up (their MOM!) and ask for their promotion. You know everyone laughed at them while simultaneously thinking that they were worthy for the promotion.
Or having a meal interrupted by the woman with the jar of perfume? How do you keep a conversation going? Who wants to eat with that cloying scent everywhere? And then Jesus mentioned that no one had washed his feet, and you feel embarrassed for the host. What a disaster.
Perhaps the most remarkable example of awkwardness is the traveling band of disciples. It’s a bad mix for a dinner party, zealots and the tax collectors they’d like to kill, brothers and fishermen, and married men who have other things on their minds.
U.A. Fanthorpe has a poem describing this motley crew, speaking of them from Jesus’ point of view. From Getting It Across:
Pete, with his headband stuffed with fishhooks,
His gift for rushing in where angels wouldn’t,
Tom, for whom metaphor is anathema,
And James and John, who want the room at the top—
These numskulls are my medium. I called them.
I am tattooing God on their makeshift lives.
My Keystone Cops of disciples, always,
Running absurdly away, or lying ineptly,
Cutting off ears and falling into the water,
These Sancho Panzas must tread my Quixote life.
Fanthorpe concludes by calling them “The dear, the human, the dense.” The pratfalling numskulls, none of them particularly refined or adept at conversation. The few instances of meals shared sound awkward enough; how many more included glaring or painful silences or, God forbid, political disputes?
At the Catholic Worker shelter where I live and work, we share meals together three nights a week. For families coming from situations of homelessness, this regulation is the cause of much protesting. Toddlers whine about being confined to high chairs. Kids proclaim they do not like the food. Sometimes the adults join them in this affirmation. Everything is too bland, the meat is underdone, or we have run out of cheese, or there are too many vegetables, or the preference is for spaghetti instead of soup.
These meals, more often than not, are awkward. Conversation lurches when it happens at all. Frequent reminders are necessary to keep people off of their phones for the duration of the 20-minute dinner.
Yet, in the face of all verbal and nonverbal protests, I am unwavering in placing meals at the center of our shared life. Community building does not happen passively despite what we may want to believe about ourselves or others. There is a fair amount of awkwardness necessary. Many stilted conversations happen, and we try and fail to build relationships before we arrive at knowledge of one another, to say nothing of affinity.
The table is one of the few places where it is easy to let one another know we see them, hear their preferences, and, within reason, remember them. There was one meal years ago where two community members were present, Stacey and Gloria. Stacey had cooked dinner that night, and Gloria brought her toddler to the table at the sound of the nightly bell.
Gloria poured water into each class from the table pitcher, and she gestured to one of the water glasses on the table. “That one is yours,” she told Stacey. “I made sure it didn’t have any ice since I know you don’t like ice.”
After the dinner blessing prayer, Stacey excused herself to the kitchen and brought back an individual serving of the dinner dish. She placed it in front of Gloria.
“What’s this?” Gloria asked, slightly suspicious. “Why do I have something different than everybody else?”
“I made yours without peas,” replied Stacey. “I know you don’t like them.”
I know you. I heard you. I had a choice, and I thought about what you’d like best and chose accordingly. Outside of the table, what other times do we get to so easily affirm our knowledge of one another and our affection for one another as our knowledge grows? How will we possibly love our neighbors if we don’t even know them?
Of course, one could argue that an anti-pea preference is hardly comprehensive knowledge of another person. Yet it constantly surprises me how little knowledge of another person it takes to make a meaningful difference.
Jesus also showed this to be the case. Telling the woman at the well she had had five husbands caused her to proclaim, “He knew everything I’d ever done!” Telling Nathaniel he’d been sitting under a fig tree before they met caused Nathaniel to affirm, “You are the Son of God!” People long to be known, and it takes very little knowledge to set them glowing.
Last Christmas, we had a breakfast with Santa early in December for our former shelter guests. It was chaotic, with the kids too anxious to eat much as they watched the door for Santa’s arrival.
I sat at a table and chatted with a mom about her new apartment in the neighborhood, her first since leaving the shelter, and how she and her son were getting ready for the holiday. “The place is great,” she told me, “but I don’t have a Christmas tree. I don’t know if we’re going to get one either. They are pretty expensive this year.”
The following week a woman at church approached me. Did we know anyone who needed a Christmas tree? They had one they were no longer using, and it was in good shape. She would be happy to deliver it if we knew of anyone.
It is rare that a need and an offer so perfectly align in my work, so I happily put the two women in contact. I heard the arrival of the tree one evening, with the women warmly exchanging Christmas well-wishes at the drop-off.
When I spoke to that mom later in the month, she was voluble in her gratitude. “I just mentioned the tree in passing, and you remembered,” she said. “It’s a huge tree. It almost touches the ceiling. I had to get my boyfriend to put the star on top because he was the only one tall enough. I can’t believe you remembered. It means so much to me.”
What do we lack? What do we like? What has our journey been? I know that answering these questions does not give us a complete picture of a person. But knowing a few of the answers is the only place I know to start.
When one of our new employees or guests complains that the meals are socially difficult or it’s hard to make friends, I tell them a story about myself, about a lame and awkward event I continuously attended.
When I first moved to Cincinnati, I went looking for a church. I asked a coworker who was a lifelong resident, and she mentioned a church known for its work in the community. It sounded like a fine place to start, so I began attending every Sunday.
After each service, I made it a point to go to coffee hour, an ordeal that was uniquely painful to my introvert self. I would vow to stay for the time it took to drink an entire cup of coffee. When I finished my coffee, I was free to slink out the door.
The church proved to be a socially tricky place to make headway. A single person on the membership committee, Jean, went out of her way to speak to me each time she saw me, but otherwise, the crowd was pretty aloof. Even attending a membership class failed to bring about relational fruit, so I decided to try somewhere else.
Imagine my surprise a few weeks later when Jean called me up. She had noticed my absence from church and wondered if we could get coffee together. I was not particularly excited to explain why I had stopped coming, but since she had made the effort to reach out, it felt churlish not to accept.
We met, appropriately enough, at a coffee shop one Saturday afternoon. After exchanging pleasantries, we turned to the reason for the meeting, and I explained what I had found hard about the church community she represented.
To my surprise, Jean did not disagree with me. She listened thoughtfully and even acknowledged similar places she found hard. And then, the conversation drifted in other directions. We chatted for almost two hours and made plans to do so again.
Those awkward coffee hours, that squirm-inducing reason for a coffee date, resulted in my first real Cincinnati friend. Twelve years later, we are still going strong. I called her up when a friend of mine needed a place to stay for a few weeks after her house burned down. Jean invited me to her thesis defense when she completed her Ph.D. We have seen one another through personal triumphs and personal collapse, and it is because we both repeatedly showed up in an awkward social space.
This is the hope to keep in mind: not that you will learn to like everyone or even feel at ease, but that you might, with persistence, get one new person out of it. You don’t have to like everyone in the community, or even a majority, but try coming away with one new person from this time. This doesn’t happen by chance! Only prolonged proximity provides the space for relationships to emerge.