Not long after my husband and I were married over 15 years ago, one of our first “grown-up” purchases was an antique, oak kitchen table. It can expand to make room for more guests. Through the years, many guests have indeed dined there, resulting in several scratches and knicks that add to its charm.
The table has now traveled with us through moves between four houses in three states. In each of these first three homes, we shared meals with neighbors, coworkers, students, and with my sister and her family who lived nearby. Together with church friends, we prayed before digging into a spicy chicken curry or a plateful of Ethiopian food. At the table, we discussed politics and religion and every topic in between. Lingering over a final glass of wine or cup of coffee and homemade pie, we made lifelong connections. This is where our community was built.
Life felt disjointed and disconnected.
The most recent big move of our marriage happened three years ago as we drove north in search of something more for our family. We were living in a racially homogeneous town in Iowa with our two adopted Black sons, and after much prayer and procrastination, it was time to leave for St. Paul, Minnesota. With boxes of books and our well-loved table packed into the U-Haul, the sense of community that we had built over the last eight years—a church family, a teaching job I loved, my sister and her family down the street—grew small in the distance as we drove north.
I became a part-time adjunct professor with little contact with my colleagues; my husband worked from home. Our kids no longer played on the same sports teams as our neighbors. Our church friends were no longer the same as our school friends. Life felt disjointed and disconnected. Prior to this, my friendships happened organically through multiple layers of overlapping community. Now, our table held just the four of us.
In my new home, I was lonely.
Eventually, I thought about the meals Jesus shared with friends. I imagined him lingering after dinner, deep in conversation with his disciples. Many of these occasions, I’m sure, happened organically, but I’m also aware that sometimes people had to put themselves out there to build community with Jesus. (I’m looking at you, Zacchaeus and the woman with the alabaster jar of perfume!) While I realized Jesus and friends weren’t dining at an oak kitchen table, I knew that these shared meals led to intimate connections.
While I realized Jesus and friends weren’t dining at an oak kitchen table, I knew that these shared meals led to intimate connections.
It was time for me to invite new friends to share a meal with my family.
I started by cooking for a new neighborhood friend I met through a Facebook group, of all places. She had gone out of her way to introduce herself when she saw me at a favorite local restaurant, and we soon set up weekly walking dates. Her kids were younger than mine, but everyone needs to eat. I shared our favorite Ethiopian dishes with her family, and eventually she returned the favor by preparing delicious Mexican pozole for us.
I also invited over new friends from church. Their four younger daughters ran circles around my teenage sons as the grown-ups sat around the table, discussing recent sermons and plans to advocate for our Black children in our local school systems.
Eventually I branched out more, inviting two college students who sat near us at church. These two young women became frequent fixtures at our table. One brought stories about her recent trip home to the Bahamas, while the other helped my oldest son put twists in his hair. College students from my writing class came over to eat a homemade meal and share family connections at our table. Two of these students were born in Ethiopia and could talk with my sons about their home country. Another student, far from home, came frequently to play or watch basketball with my sons. He shared a meal at our table, becoming a bonus older brother.
And then a virus arrived, halting my in-person hospitality. After this season with a constantly-rotating cast of loved ones around my table, it now holds just the four of us again. My college students are back home, sheltering in place with their families; my church and neighborhood friends are now voices on the phone instead of in-person hugs and lingering glasses of wine. A socially-distanced conversation from one driveway to the next isn’t the same as an array of chairs pulled tight around a table. When I’m not careful, the loneliness creeps back in.
As my husband reminds me, though, this is a season—and like all seasons, it’s one that will end. For now, I enjoy the intentional shared meals with my forced-to-slow-down teenagers. Sometime in the future, I will again be adding extra plates and bringing out the folding chairs from the closet, strengthening the community we’ve started to build.