By Joanna Lawrence Shenk and Pat Plude
I want to bring your attention to our prayer of confession, written for this series. Especially the second and third lines: We offer what we can at our welcome table. We become guests at the welcome table of others.
So far in the series we’ve been talking about our welcome table and its limits. Today I’m going to focus on why it’s important to be guests at the welcome table of others and how that relates to power.
I want to begin with a story that takes place a few years back. The setting is a capoeira weekend conference/festival I attended with my dear friend, Sarah. Sarah had been practicing capoeira for a couple years and she was eager for me to get to know that community too.
For those who are not familiar with capoeira, it’s a Brazilian martial art that originated in enslaved communities as a way to train for revolt and self-defense, as well as to remember cultural traditions that enslavers were trying to destroy. So as not to draw the attention of their masters, Africans camouflaged the martial aspects as a dance, and the playing of capoeira always includes instruments and singing. All the while it can be a lethal form of self-defense.
For Sarah the capoeira community is a place to integrate movement, athletic skill, musical expression and her identity as a descendent of enslaved Africans. This kind of integration is not available in our Mennonite circle of connections.
I was honored that she invited me to go with her and I was also quite nervous. Upon arrival at the conference, I noticed I was in the minority as a white person and that all the instructors were people of color. The conference sessions were capoeira classes where we learned different movements and how to play the instruments and sing the songs in Portuguese. Some instruction was in English, but a lot of Portuguese was spoken as well.
I felt so uncomfortable in this cross-cultural situation. I could not get my body to move correctly. I felt like everyone was probably noticing how inept I was and secretly laughing at me… the uncoordinated white girl making a fool of herself. My anxiety was high all weekend. I sometimes wished I could just sink into the floor. Sarah tried to reassure me, but it didn’t work.
At the same time I was so impressed with the strength and ease of the instructors and other participants and the ways their bodies flowed. They were genuinely having fun and eager to share that experience with others. They were at home and comfortable, as far as I could tell. They were free from the weight of the outside world. Everyone was so welcoming and encouraging. Unfortunately it was difficult for me to receive it due to my extreme self consciousness.
I wanted to do it right but I couldn’t. The movement felt counterintuitive and messed with my linear sense of order. It’s like I wanted the movements to be in a simple box, but they were flowing and swirling and spiraling all over the place.
In retrospect I don’t think anyone was expecting me to get it right. And I bet very few people were even noticing me much. I also think other people were making mistakes. I imagine that was an expected part of the learning process. I imagine that was even part of the fun.
Although that weekend was quite a challenge for me, I am so glad that Sarah invited me. I’m grateful for her encouragement, the warmth of that capoeira community, and for the opportunity to be a guest at their welcome table. It was a humbling and formative experience.
So often in my life I am at a table that centers my experience or I’m the one setting the table as a host. In most cases I know how to perform my role and I understand the table manners. As a white woman with a masters degree, a professional title and a measure of economic security, I can easily organize my life in a way that keeps me at comfortable tables. And don’t get me wrong, I am doing good and valuable things at these tables. However, I am still in control and I am separated from the wisdom of much needed teachers.
At the capoeira conference I encountered teachers who were encouraging me to get into my body. I had teachers who were showing me there were different ways of moving through the world. I had teachers who were challenging my need to do things right and be perfect. Life is a dance, they said, where you’re constantly in dynamic relationship with others. I understood this theoretically but recognized I was just at the beginning of embodying it.
Our call as followers of Jesus is to break down the barriers that have been created to separate people so that we can become the beloved community, the kindom of God. These barriers are interpersonal and systemic. So far in this series we’ve talked about the barriers of cultural supremacy and class exclusivity. These barriers inhibit our ability to create beloved community and build the power we need to transform the world.
One important step in breaking down these barriers is to visit other tables and become a guest.
I think for those who have white bodies or those shaped by the Anabaptist tradition or those with a measure of affluence, it can be especially challenging to know how to show up as a guest. Well first we might not even think it’s important because we have our own table to manage, and wouldn’t others want to join the good thing we have going on? Or maybe we just don’t have time to be a guest.
Even when we do venture out to be a guest, internal struggles abound. These struggles are about how we negotiate our power, which can be tricky. At the capoeira conference I diminished my power and ability to contribute to the gathered group. I made myself too small out of fear of messing up. You may remember I wanted to disappear. This response I think is just as unhelpful as taking up too much space.
When Sarah reflected on the weekend, she told me that she had to expend a lot of energy to help me feel comfortable. Of course I was not aware of the demand I put on her because I was so caught up in my own self-consciousness.
I think people in Mennonite communities, or progressive communities that have an awareness of power, might fall into this pattern just as much as the pattern of taking up too much space. Neither are healthy. So what do we do about this?
Let’s return to the scripture passage Beverly read and see what wisdom is there for us about being good guests. [Read Luke 14:15-24]
The invitations are sent but people are too busy with important things. I have land to manage! I have possessions to take care of! I just got married! They are all doing responsible things. They have good excuses.
So a second round of invites go out to others who respond affirmatively. They want to be at the table. They have needs. They are hungry. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst, Jesus said. Do I hunger and thirst? Do I have needs? Or am I “self-sufficient?”
This God of our scriptures is the god of people who have needs. The enslaved and the exiled, the god of the losers and the poor. I find this understanding of God so liberating. It is both a liberation from imperial Christianity with its “superior” god who has been used to justify a host of evils throughout history. And it’s a liberation from the ways that whiteness, perfectionism and superiority have been ingrained in me.
I am set free in knowing I don’t have to be perfect, that I won’t be judged for mistakes and weakness, and that God is with me in grief and suffering (rather than causing the grief and suffering). This understanding of God opens the door for me to name my needs and struggles, knowing that God is there with me in the midst of them.
This understanding from our scriptures also speaks to the questions about how we show up in our power. Whereas whiteness and attitudes of superiority/inferiority would only allow us to be either the best or the worst in a given setting… the expert or the idiot… thank God we have other options.
We can show up with awareness of our needs and our strengths. We can embody a confident humility, that allows for a dynamic flow in relationships and community. Yes, we will still make mistakes or say the wrong thing when we are a guest. But the mistakes are okay. And anyone around the table who has been a guest knows what it’s like! I was my own harshest critic at the capoeira conference, whereas others knews the mistakes were a natural part of the learning process.
The Spirit of Life is inviting us to the table… a table that offers something we need. These needs could be: To find common cause with people who are different than ourselves. To let go of control. To connect with our bodies. As Joy DeHaro is quoted in our Call to Worship, to laugh at our poor falling-down selves and put ourselves back together. To be led beyond security into sacred space.
The invitation has been given. As good guests we come knowing we are in need. We come knowing we have something to give. We come with humility knowing that we need each other.
In closing, I pass the mic to Pat for a story. As we three pastoral staff talked together about the content of this sermon, Pat was inspired to articulate the following story from her recent experience.
So in the last few weeks I have challenged myself to do some phone banking for the election. As I’ve said to family and friends, “I’m actually cold calling strangers, and I haven’t died!” Which probably tells you how I feel about both making and receiving unsolicited calls!
This week, as I talked with Joanna about this sermon, I found myself reflecting on these calls: vote-by-mail in Wisconsin through WI Dems, and deep canvassing in SF through Faith in Action. It is clear in WI that I am calling primarily African Americans. And, I deliberately chose the African American voter list for my calls in SF.
Of course in these calls, many people simply don’t pick up. But a number of conversations have been disarming. Most African Americans I speak to are warm, friendly, receptive, and to my surprise, even grateful for the call. In San Francisco one man said, “Wait, I want to sit down and have this conversation; can you call back in an hour and a half when I can do that?” I did, and we connected over our shared belief that corporations really need to pay their fair share of taxes. At the end, when I asked him again – “So, how are you doing, really? – he answered solemnly, “Well, I can work. I’m one of the blessed ones.” As we hung up, he thanked me for my call. Several times.
The previous weekend I had a rich conversation with an African American woman in Milwaukee. She told me how she was concerned that the young people in her neighborhood did not understand the gravity of this election, and she told me all the things she was doing to try to get them to the polls. We talked for nearly 10 minutes, and when we closed she said, “Thank you for your call. God bless you.”
Now, in my calls in San Francisco this week, I also reached two women who I’m pretty sure were white – though of course I don’t know for sure. (My assumption is due to their names and the way they sounded on the phone). When I introduced myself to the first woman and told her why I was calling, she told me very crisply, “I’m eating lunch now.” It was clear that my phone call was an intrusion. I said a few things about Prop 15 – the Schools & Communities First initiative – and made a hasty retreat. The other woman responded to my question about how she was doing in these trying times with a brittle, “I’m fine. I don’t need anything. You don’t need to spend your time talking to me.” In this I heard that she wanted me to “use my time well” for those really in need. And this is legitimate. But her tone also communicated that talking to me was a burden.
In these calls with (presumed) white women, I see aspects of myself. First of all, I dislike being interrupted by unsolicited phone calls! I find them annoying and like these women, often experience them as an intrusion. More specifically, I believe I have my act together around voting, and I don’t generally feel I need someone trying to convince me of things I can read up on myself. (After all, I am *educated* and *capable* and “I can make up my own mind, thank you very much!”
And, I have been changing since I have joined the multi-generational, multicultural, inter-racial, and inter-class communities of Welcome to the Table and Faith in Action. To be sure, I still don’t like unsolicited phone calls much, and I don’t usually pick up. But I have found myself engaging with the myriad of election texts I get every day differently. When it’s clear there is a real person sending the text, I take time to respond. I answer their questions honestly. I engage warmly around our shared work. I always thank them for their service, and close with something like, “Together, we will do this!”
Slowly, through body to body experience, I am *learning* something new from people who show me other ways of being in relationship. People who value linear time and efficiency and capability, and independence SO much less. People who value relatedness SO much more. People who *know* in their bodies, from hundreds of years of oppression, that our salvation is all bound up together. That we *need* each other. And we *need* the Spirit, who has promised to be present when two or three are gathered together.
In being a guest at others’ tables, I am changed. And I am richly blessed. Amen.