What happens when a conservative, a liberal, an immigrant, and an atheist sit down at the dinner table? This may sound like the beginning of a not-so-p.c. joke, but for Emily Nelson, what happens is holy.

 

At the table, in a room full of strangers, Rowan, who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home but turned away from the faith in later years, asks, “why are Christians so adamant about life being lost in the womb, but turn a blind eye to suicide rates and the mental health crisis we face today?”

At the table, when asked point blank how he “dared” to vote for Trump, Serge, an immigrant who waited ten years to gain entry to the US, tells us that he would have been on the streets if taxes continued to rise for self-employed citizens under a different presidency. His health insurance costs were choking him out and left him little to no choice in his presidential vote at the ballot box.

At the table, when asked about her thoughts on abortion, Janet says, “I’m an atheist, and a liberal leaning one at that…I don’t believe that God exists. But I’ve always believed in the sanctity of life. I don’t know why, and can’t articulate exactly what it is about it, but there’s something inside me that refuses to let the innocent die.”

At the table, when Aja asks Juan directly if he came to the United States legally, Juan tells a story of his ancestors, his nephews and nieces, who lost their lives crossing the border for the dream of safety. The room is quiet. The question remains unanswered. A spirit of reverence permeates the space.

These are real comments that came from real people in my very own Seattle community. Each one of these comments was made around the table, over dinner at a local Make America Dinner Again event. Yes, you read that correctly.

Make America Dinner Again (MADA) is a non-profit organization that equips communities to host and facilitate safe and guided political discussions around the dinner table. These dinner events consist of curating a group of ten to thirteen participants from a local community who have applied to attend a meal through our online application. These tables consist of participants from opposite sides of the political spectrum and those invited are selected to bring diversity in political leanings, gender, ethnicity, and age to the table. As the evening begins, the facilitator presents a set of specific guidelines, listening activities, topic questions, and even safe words to cultivate healthy dialogue. Over five hundred people in the Seattle area alone have applied to sit at a table like this, engaging everything from immigration to abortion, gun laws to mental health, systemic injustice to personal injustice, national politics to local politics, and the list goes on. The bread is broken, the wine is poured, and conversation begins.

Why Make America Dinner Again?

In April of 2016, I had the privilege of opening the Seattle chapter of Make America Dinner Again and have been facilitating meals, hosting trainings and workshops ever since. I initially became interested in hosting these dinners because the pain of polarization had slowly seeped into my own community. Over the years, and particularly after the 2016 election, I encountered a lack of space or willingness to face difficult conversations through any venue other than our social media channels. When we exclusively engage difficulty online, it becomes easier and more tempting to forget the humanity of others. MADA became a way of remembrance for me, and provided an opportunity for political engagement that reached far beyond my vote.

MADA enabled me to practice grace. As someone who longs to see reconciliation in my own life and context, the intentionality of these meals has made them into holy encounters.

MADA enabled me to practice grace. As someone who longs to see reconciliation in my own life and context, the intentionality of these meals has made them into holy encounters. At first, I wanted so desperately to teach, to show, and to shed light on our polarized reality. But as I facilitated more and more of these discussions, I realized it was not at all about sharing and teaching. It was about active listening. It was about making space for others—space for their voices, their stories, and ultimately their humanity. The community responses, the dialogue, the tears, laughter, anger, confusion, and empathy that is present among strangers left participants wanting more every time.

These holy encounters cause me to wonder what it might be like if the Church embodied a space like this. What would it look like if the Church responded to the call of reconciliation by the breaking of bread?

The Power of the Table

Our God is a god of justice and compassion and I want my decisions at the polls to reflect that to the best of my ability. However, the real political influence of my Christian faith can be found in the way that I’m empowered to see the imago dei in the individuals around me.

As Christ followers who live in this country, in this cultural moment, and particularly in Cascadia, we hold a vast and yet specific need for face-to-face conversation and positive confrontation, while upholding healthy boundaries along the way. Our answer to the call of connecting what has been disconnected within the spaces we call home needs so much more than an outlined commitment to our personal politics. The answer to this call requires an entirely new way of seeing, knowing, and loving the people God has placed around us. It requires communion—a meal shared at a table big enough even for those with whom we disagree.

Our need for communion with one another is consistently preceded by our need for communion with the Living God.

Our need for communion with one another is consistently preceded by our need for communion with the Living God. In Scripture, the table has been seen as both a symbolic and literal space for healing, growth, and unity throughout the entire biblical meta-narrative. Our most potent example comes from the Last Supper, where Christ brings the breaking of bread and the pouring of wine into focus in a whole new way. He transforms a simple meal into a holy sacrament. In the multiplication of the fish and the loaves (John 6:1-14), the transformation of water to wine (John 2:1-11), and even in the revelation of his own identity by the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:30-35), Christ makes a way of reconciling the world through the simplicity of the table.

The table takes on the very same pattern of embodiment that Christ displayed when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. The law was not fulfilled until it was given a body, a story, and a hunger for goodness. Our bodies, our stories, and even our brokenness echo this journey of reconciliation. These tools have been gifted to us by grace, but they can only move us towards love when we choose to bring our whole selves to the table, no matter who else is there.

True hospitality means taking someone in—taking in their words, feelings, and even actions before mentally preparing a response, and it is not easy. It’s the art of sitting in the mud with someone before telling them to get up and move on. Just sitting. Just listening. Just scooting over for a moment’s time for you friends and family, in your home town and city.

These are the spaces that move us towards change. If we want to be a people who bring hope and healing to a broken culture with the message of Jesus, we must be willing to scoot over and make room at the table for those with whom we disagree, no matter who they might be.

 

If you are interested in hosting a MADA dinner event in your own community, please email me at emilynelson@fuller.edu. If you would like to participate in one of these dinners, please feel free to fill out an application at our Seattle location website here.