July 10, 2012

Post-Kenya Notebook: Community: It's What's for Dinner

A meal is never just a meal. It's always something more. Catholics believe that, in the Eucharist, bread becomes body and wine, blood. Yes, precisely!

Eating with others mediates something beyond dinner plates and casual conversation. Unknown activity is at work (or play) among our belly-filling. Meal-sharing tethers souls, knits hearts, and even dresses wounds, in such a seemingly magical undergoing that it yields community (or seeds that, soon, will become community) and a sense of togetherness (I've talked about this before). As with plants, patience is a virtue in common meals, giving way to--hopefully, prayerfully--a bountiful harvest. This is why families who eat together are better off.

But as with partaking in Christ's holy body, eating in community can be abused, yielding, instead, grave consequences, an anti-harvest. Luckily though, our Kenyan dinners stirred clear. I would even be so optimistic to say that dinnertime in Kenya, usually eaten at Mountain Rock Hotel, being some of my favorite memories, brought about more than full tummies, but actually mediated unity.

Our meals always started the same way, with the same question--after having taken our seats at the long wooden table perfectly set: 'What do you want to drink?' Paul, our main dinner host, would ask. Typically, the answers were Coke or Fanta (pineapple being favored), which came in glass bottles; none of this cheap can stuff.

We ate well. None of our dinners were 'far out' by any means. They were buffet-style with some form of beef or chicken, rice, potatoes, carrots and broccoli kept warm in metal heaters. We served ourselves.

Tired of my dank dress clothes, I would always change before dinner. I like to eat comfortably. Stiff, sticky dress shirts don’t exactly complement the informal and relaxed dinners I was going for. So pass my sweats and zip-up, I'm hungry!

I remember praying the first couple days of our trip, asking God to unify us, to make us a family. That will be, most likely, the only time that group of people will ever be together, for that specific cause and mission. We are from different parts of the world, with diverse upbringings, family cultures and friends. And although I didn’t know many of my teammates before, we came together--I’m thinking of that ending scene in Iron Giant.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but it usually takes me a long time to get to know people, but especially vise-versa, to make myself known. And I didn’t want to be just some cog in some grand machinery doing my part as a member of this team outside of genuine community, and apart from brotherly and sisterly love. Right? Who wants that? It took a little while (a couple days), but my prayer was answered. Our team learned community. Maybe not perfectly. Were there holes? Probably. But it started to happen nonetheless. And how did it happen? Of course you know, over dinner!

Now I’m not saying that everyone felt this way. I am, after all, biased. I am more social at night and thus love being around people after sunset, and this was when we ate. But I still think it’s mostly true.

The first couple dinners, we ate then left. But slowly, our plates would be empty of the food that, just earlier, rested atop and we were still sitting, chatting and laughing. See, this is how you know. This is the marker. If being together ceases once the meal is finished, once the food is down and gone, then community and togetherness may be scarce. But when a meal becomes just the beginning, the starting place, for being together, you know you are onto something good, something beautiful, something right.

I sat across and between great people who, only days before I hardly knew. Now we were becoming family. We reminisced of the day’s adventures, of Tav’s charismatic preaching, of Amanda’s grandma shoes, of demon-bird’s blood-curdling squawk.

Though, for some Christians and ministers, eating lies outside normal sacred duties, I find myself more and more wanting to take meal-eating seriously. Maybe we too could ask, alongside the Pharisees (hopefully, though, with a humble heart) in Matthew 9:11, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

Yes, why?