A Dinner Church Grows in Brooklyn

by Heather Young

When was the last time you dined with a stranger, someone with whom you had no mutual friends? For folks who worship at St. Lydia’s, a dinner church in Brooklyn, the answer is usually “last Sunday.”

Over the last four years, our little church has grown from an Advent experiment held in a downtown Manhattan apartment to a weekly Sunday-evening service in Brooklyn with an active Bible-study group, a bustling theology group, a fruitful community garden, and more. At least one thing, though, has remained constant: We forge our bond by working together to make a meal, set the table, and break the bread; that bond is further strengthened when we sit together and tell our stories. Food is central to the experience at St. Lydia’s in more ways than one. Just as the first followers of Jesus did, we gather around a table to eat and talk—to fill our bellies as we chew on a piece of Scripture and see how it resonates in our own lives—but we also work together to make the meal and tidy up afterward. Members of our community tend the garden patch in which some of our ingredients are grown. We share the responsibility of planning, cooking, serving, cleaning. At dinner church, we experience communion in both the broader sense (fellowship) and the liturgical one (the holy Eucharist), and we do it around a dinner table.

I often volunteer as a lead cook, which is a perfect role for a food lover who relishes making a plan and being in charge. At first, it seems self-explanatory, if slightly tricky: Choose a vegetarian meal that will feed many (currently, we cook for 35), cost little, and cook in under an hour. In the interest of setting a table that can feed the greatest number of eaters, we only cook vegetarian (though if someone has further dietary restrictions, we can usually make some modifications to be sure they’re fed). I was a vegetarian for about half of my life, so I love broadening minds about how satisfying, nourishing, and filling a meat-free dinner can be.

But planning is really only a small part of the role of a lead cook. As with all leadership roles in our church, the primary job is really being a good host. In our own homes, when we welcome a friend to a dinner party, the first words out of their mouths might be, “Is there anything I can do to help?” If you’re like me, you might send them away with a drink and a smile and finish preparing the meal just so. At St. Lydia’s, help is part of the package. As soon as someone walks in our door, they’re welcomed and put to work, and as a cook, I must find ways to delegate tasks. There is a shift that happens when a meal is prepared by many hands—by the collective body—rather than one chef. It’s a team effort, and at our church, it often means that one of the people seated next to you helped make what you’re eating.

For a culinary perfectionist like me, this has delivered some unexpected benefits. One Sunday, I may have a kitchen novice and an eight-year-old as my assistants, and one day I may have an amateur baker and a former army cook. Each time, I learn something. To be a good host and to be a good Christian, I need to share and I need to teach. Frequently, I need to allow myself to be taught. While I am educating my helpers on kitchen basics, or good food pairings, or how to choose a ripe avocado, I’m also learning lessons like “everything will still taste good even if the onions aren’t uniformly diced.” For me, a big part of being a host at dinner church is being gracious about the help I’m offered. And as a result, the workarounds I’ve made due to mistakes or a lack of correct equipment have turned me into a better chef.

The learning and teaching doesn’t end by the time we sit down to eat. In New York City, you may wind up seated at a communal table in a restaurant, but the behavioral code dictates that you pretend the people squeezed in beside you simply do not exist. Bit by bit, meal by meal, St. Lydia’s tears that notion down. Through shared work before the service begins, some of those walls we city-dwellers erect around ourselves have already begun to crumble. Together, we bring light into the space, lighting all the candles on the tables. We administer the Eucharist to one another, tearing a loaf of bread into pieces and saying, “This is my body.” We sit, we pass out plates of food, and we chat. Just as often as I end up next to an old friend, I find myself seated at a table of newcomers. Unlike a post-service coffee hour, this meal gives us a chance to dig a little deeper with our fellow worshipers. Yes, I want to know what brought you to church tonight, but I’m just as interested in the strange thing you saw on the subway this morning, or what book you’re reading right now, or how it’s hard for you to be away from your family at this time of year. At St. Lydia’s, we talk and we listen; we eat, and we are fed. For two hours every Sunday, we practice what it’s like to live in a world where the walls between people aren’t quite so high, and where everyone’s gifts are welcome and appreciated. It should be noted that gifted dishwashers are especially appreciated.

Our community coordinator, Rachel, once said that St. Lydia’s is a place where it doesn’t matter that things are perfect. We may not have the right answer to a question, or we may not sing a song the same way it was taught, or we may stop in the middle of the sermon because there’s a weird noise coming from outside that no one can ignore. The meal may not be perfect: the pasta may be slightly overdone, or the peppers may be too crunchy because the stove wouldn’t get hot enough to sauté, or the conversation at one table may be a little slow to start. But every time—every single time—it is exactly what it needs to be. What matters is not that the thing, whatever it is that we’re making, is perfect. It matters that we wrestled with it and that we did it together.

 

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