In my last blog, I asked where you saw the best hopes of abolishing the division between “the poor” and the rest of us. Since no-one took up the challenge, I thought I would bring my own example – the Wednesday Night Suppers.
For the past fifteen years or so, over fifty people have eaten dinner together on Wednesdays at Danforth Baptist Church. The individuals come and go, but the diners are always a mix of church members, people from rooming houses or the street; social housing tenants, business- and home-owners, and friends-of-friends. So are the cooks, the servers and the clean-up crew. The food is always good. There’s lots of joking and interesting conversation, and I always have a great time.
But it took me a long time to muster the courage to come and eat. For years I supported the Suppers with my donations, but always found reasons why I couldn’t be there in person. The real reason was that I was afraid – not of the other diners – but of my own flaws: my condescension, my know-it-all-ness, my oppressive cheerfulness, my smugness. I knew I didn’t want to come as Lady Charity. So I didn’t come at all, until finally Joe, one of the Suppers’ amazing leaders, said, “please, please come just once.”
The place where the lion lies down with the lamb
As soon as I started coming to the Suppers, I saw my “Lady Charity” fears were unfounded. People accepted me as I was. Shortly after I started coming, a newcomer asked, “Why are you here?” There was a moment of surprised silence at the table, and then another person said to my great delight, “She’s one of us.”
Now, my persistent image of the Suppers is “the Peaceable Kingdom” described in Isaiah – that hoped-for land where the lion lies down with the lamb (although it’s actually a wolf and a lamb, a leopard and a goat in my translation).
I think many us read this passage from the perspective of the lamb, who can rest knowing it is safe and protected. I see it from the perspective of the lion. When I sit down to eat at the Suppers, I know that at among the people at my table I will probably be the rich one, the healthy one, the pain-free one, maybe the sober one – although not, I have learned, the educated one, the smart one, or the well-read one, even though I think of myself as all these things.
But I’ve learned that I can be a lion, and still “neither harm nor destroy,” as Isaiah says. I know this because of a strange encounter with Marcel. Marcel is not a Suppers-regular. He is a man who was staggering outside the church on a freezing afternoon. I was rushing from a church meeting to a doctor’s appointment when he literally fell into my arms. I was bending under the weight of this heavy, drunken man who could not hold himself up, whose face was smeared with tears, snot and drool, and whose words were a blur. Then a young woman pushed herself under his other arm, saying without irony, “I just love these people — such beautiful spirits.”
Her example led me to an uncharacteristic act – to forego my reputation for reliability and punctuality, abandon my appointment, and stay with this man. We half-carried him into the now-empty church, I phoned Anishnawbe’s Street Outreach line, the woman left, and I sat down with Marcel to wait.
It was a revealing time. As Marcel warmed up, he began to talk. He’s a wild guy. At one point he grabbed the church’s ice-chopper and began to swing it around. He said he’d knifed a guy. But he also talked about himself, his birthplace on the West Coast, his kids, and all the things strangers talk about. So when he grabbed my wrist and slyly pulled my watch off, I firmly grabbed his wrist and took back my watch. And we both laughed and joked until the wonderful, easy-going outreach worker appeared.
I want to be very clear. This encounter did nothing to help Marcel. He left me in the same condition as he arrived. I doubt he would recognize me on the street and I might not recognize him. We are not friends.
The beneficiary in this story was me. I now know I can be a “middle-class, white-bread, tea-totaller” and Marcel can be a “scary, wild, drunken man,” and we can still find common ground as middle-aged parents from the west coast.
I think I am still a lion. Maybe Marcel thinks he is the lion in this story. In any case, I know that not every lion has to endanger the lambs.
Friends, I am not really sure why these “bridging the divide” stories are so meaningful to me, only that they are, and I would love to hear yours.