A Seat at the Table: The Transformative Practice of Being Together
Early this year, the congregation I am a part of in Knoxville, Tennessee, Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (TVUUC), helped bring an Interfaith program called A Seat at the Table (ASATT) to our hometown. The premise is very simple: once a month people from a diversity of faith traditions sit down to share a meal and a conversation. Last week, I got to attend one of these dinners - despite the apparent simplicity of the concept, it was a profound and transformative experience.
A Seat at the Table dinners move from place to place each month, landing wherever they can find a home. This month, we were on the eighth floor of the Sunsphere—a relic built for the 1982 World's Fair (picture a giant mirrored glass ball balanced atop a tower in the middle of our small downtown).
The elevator doors open and the first thing you see is the web of street lights stretching out over the city below. The glass walls reach all the way around the circular room, giving me the vague feeling that I was entering a strategic meeting of local justice-making superheroes. When I arrived, only a few people were gathered. We shook hands introducing ourselves.
"Is this your first time?" "Yeah." "Me, too."
As people came in, the crowd of minglers grew, and I found myself making my usual search for a corner to stand in (this time futile, the room was round). But this feeling went beyond the usual social awkwardness of a room of people who don't know each other. There was a distinct sense of not knowing how to act, what questions to ask, or where to even begin.
Finally we were released from our tiny strange conversations into a line for the buffet. Dinner was catered by Yassin's Falafel House, a locally owned restaurant that hosted a Love Trumps Hate lunch the day after the election. We sat at big round tables with white tablecloths. Conversations improved over dinner. Several people at our table bonded over mourning the loss of a recently closed favorite bakery. One of the core organizers of ASATT, a Muslim woman named Nahid, sat down next to me and told me about how the group got started and how they hope for it to grow.
When dinner was over, the coordinator divided us into three groups. She made a few announcements, saying simply: "We ask that you just listen, without responding or interrupting," and she spoke to the recent election saying, "don't assume that we are all in the same place in our thoughts about the recent events." We carried our chairs into a separate space where we could hear ourselves speak, set them in an imperfect circle, and sat down smiling uncertainly at one another. Our facilitator, Zaynab Ansari, introduced herself: she is a Muslim woman and an instructor at Tayseer Seminary. Her presence had a brightness and certainty that was magnetic and assuring. She told us the process—that there would be three questions and we would each have a chance to respond, but that we should only speak once to each question. The questions were: "Tell us a little about your story, and what brought you to the table tonight." "Was there a transformative moment when you first realized the importance of diversity?" "Tell us one thing from your faith tradition or world view that gives you hope." After each question, each person spoke earnestly and personally in response. Without exception, everyone reached deep and shared courageously of themselves and their life experiences. There was not a word that was said that was not entirely captivating and genuine, but that third question was most moving of all: "tell us one thing that gives you hope." A Muslim man spoke, "I have five children and three grandchildren and a grand-baby on the way, so Lord willing I'm gonna be a great-granddad here pretty soon. I feel hopeful because on Wednesday, after the election, not one of them called me. Not one of them called me and said 'Granddad, what we gonna do?' because they already know what we gotta do. We've gotta keep doin' the same thing we were already doing: praying, and working to make our communities better places to live." A woman born in Kenya spoke through tears, "I hope that because of this election, people will be able to realize what's at stake." A Jewish woman said, "In the Jewish tradition, we believe that the Messiah hasn't come yet. And there's an idea that some people believe which is that the Messiah isn't a person, but is more like a Messianic time period. A time of peace that is coming in the future." I told them that I feel hopeful when I see how tenderly people have cared for each other in these last weeks, and when I see so many people taking to the streets who have never been politically active before. After the conversation, a woman from our group said I wish we had a recording of that. There was so much wisdom distilled into those brief sentences, and the transformative power that charged the air was tangible. This is the power of sitting down and listening for no other reason than understanding. As the groups finished their conversations and the crowd of minglers again formed, the change was evident. After only a few hours and the briefest of conversations together people spoke as old friends, gesturing enthusiastically and laughing often, exchanging phone numbers and hugs and promises of support before they left to return to their separate homes and lives. We were connected, heart to heart to heart. That night, I had this dream: I broke from a group of friends to follow a long passageway. It was dark and dank, like a long-forgotten subway tunnel under Detroit. I walked alone for a long way, feeling afraid but determined to reach the end. Finally I came upon an old mattress on the concrete floor. It was covered in rags, everything was dirty and wet. I was afraid to look, afraid of what I would find. In the bed was a baby - disgusting, covered in dirt; sickly, but alive. I turned around. I didn't want this baby, I didn't want this responsibility, I didn't want the work that I knew I would have to do, but I picked him up anyways, swaddling him in the least dirty of the blankets and carrying him tenderly back out of the tunnel. When I reached my friends, they were shocked, asking me: "What did you find?" "This is the Messiah," I told them. ...Growing up as a Unitarian Universalist, a respect for and readiness to fight to protect diversity has been core to my belief system and person. In fact, activism came before spirituality in my development. As a teenager I was a founding member of my High School's first Gay Straight Alliance, and the first protest I ever went to was a counter-protest to a White Supremacist rally at the Knoxville Courthouse in 2007. I have believed in fighting for diversity for as long as I have believed in anything. But it matters that we do not just believe this in our minds, but also that we work to build those bridges in our hearts. In a recent sermon our Senior Minister, Rev. Chris Buice, hedged, "That's right Unitarian Universalists, I just said what you feel matters more than what you think." The statement was greeted with laughter. It's generally accepted as truth that Unitarian Universalists are more comfortable with theories than with matters of the heart. This past Sunday I was talking about A Seat at the Table with a friend who grew up alongside me at TVUUC. She said, "Yea, it's like everything you grow up believing in but never actually do." It is easy for us to put our minds and hands to work fighting to protect diversity of race and belief and identity and sexuality in our society, and that is crucial and valuable work that must be done. But that work is meaningless if we do not also allow our hearts to be transformed, our empathy to grow, to reach across the lines that divide us and stand in true solidarity and partnership with our human family. Sometimes our dreams speak truths that we aren't ready to see yet. When I woke up the morning after the A Seat at the Table dinner, I thought to myself "if even half the people in this city went to just one of those dinners, we'd be living in a different city." It feels as though I have stumbled upon this tiny and fragile seed of peace, this dirty baby Messiah wrapped in rags, and I don't really want the responsibility. But once you find it, it is yours, and you simply can't turn around and leave it behind.