Breaking Bread, Building Community

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Living and Leading Change for Good: Meet the Disruptors

The Forum for Theological Exploration series, Living and Leading Change for Good,invites you to meet the disruptors – theological explorers and visionary architects inspired by their Christian faith and fueled by courage.  These leaders are actively addressing civil and human rights issues and the anxiety about the rising tide of color in the U.S., along with creating social entrepreneurial ventures that respond to issues our communities face today. Our hope is that their voices and stories toward peace and justice might inspire you to be the disruptive change you’ve been waiting for. You can find the full series, here.

On November 8, 2016 I found myself on my kitchen floor crying and looking for answers. The 2016 Presidential Cycle was an apocalyptic moment. In Greek, the root of the word apocalypse means to “uncover”. The election laid bare for the world to see just the deepening chasms between our communities and exposed ruptures that have always been present in our democracy. Following the election, analysts would point to fault lines defined by geography, race, educational attainment, and social class. Yet, perhaps the biggest divide was in our vision of what our nation should become.

That night I felt an overwhelming lack of safety. As a black woman living in the South, my experience of the media coverage in the lead up to the election was that the vitriol between the candidates unleashed something dark within the hearts of some my fellow citizens. Gone where any pretenses of civility.

In its place was an inflamed sense of self-righteousness that refused to see and hear the humanity in those with opposing viewpoints. At its worst, this phenomenon lead to the mainstreaming of toxic ideologies like the white supremacist leanings of figures like Richard Spencer, the inventor of the term “alt-right”.

But as the hours passed, I came to the realization that the absence of safety during these uncertain and troubling times does not justify ceding our communities to a future defined by hopelessness and despair. I am a Christian. I am a prisoner to hope. I believe that our current reality is not the final say in God’s unfolding vision of justice, love, and mercy here on Earth.

These are times that call for moral courage. We need the courage to see a vision of healing the divides that separate us. So I got up from the kitchen floor and got to work.

The result was a collaboration between myself and two friends—Emily May of Hollaback!, a movement to end harassment, and Lennon Flowers of the Dinner Party — called the #100Days100Dinners campaign. We envisioned a dinner party campaign called #100Days100Dinners aimed at reaching across political, ideological, and identity differences to repair the breach in our interpersonal relationships and lead to more civil civic discourse.

Over the course of the first 100 days of the new administration we circled people around over 110 dinner tables across the country, to have open-hearted conversations about the future of our nation.

People of faith understand just how sacred the act of gathering around a table for can be. It was around a shared table that Jesus taught some of his most important lessons, while in the process revealing the depths of both his divinity and his humanity. He performed his first miracle not at the Temple, but at a wedding feast in Cana where he transformed water into wine (John 2: 1-12). He subversively shared meals with sinners and tax collectors (Luke 5: 27-32). With his blessing over two fish and five loaves of bread, five thousand people were fed (Matthew 13-21).

Just as tables today can be the source of tension and fierce debate, the tables where Jesus ate were not devoid of conflict. In one of the more controversial moments of his ministry, Jesus shuns a Syrophoenician woman who seeks his help in healing her daughter. Despite his initial rejection, she nevertheless persisted until Jesus agreed to set her daughter free from her affliction. Their encounter has much to teach us about the risk of engaging across lines of difference. The possibility of being cast aside and ignored is always there, but so is the chance for true transformation when we see the “other” as part of our common story and collective life.

And so yes, we experienced anger and tears at some of these dinners, and also laughter and the start of greater understanding. Over the past six months, I found that dinner tables became my teachers.

I shared meals with college students in Fort Worth, Texas and met a young man who grew up in a refugee camp in Nepal. He expressed deep concern for the rising xenophobia in our country. He worried that others would perish if they were not given the opportunity to flee the violence that he knew all too well. At a dinner in Nashville, Tennessee I got to know a supporter of President Donald Trump who expressed deep anxiety about being labeled a bigot. Over the course of the dinner, the wall he constructed to protect himself slowly began to fall as we shared experiences about times each of us were made to feel unsafe or unwelcome.

Today the #100Days100Dinners campaign continues as The Peoples Supper. Like #100Days100Dinners, this campaign isn’t about a political party, or what is or isn’t happening in Washington. It’s about us, and our relationships with one another. It’s about the fact that we exist in echo chambers, and, too often, accept one-sided stereotypes.

We invite you to pull up a seat. This summer we are partnering with the #LoveArmy, a movement committed to building Love + Power as an alternative to the hate and divisiveness gaining momentum in our communities and in our country. Over the next month we will be holding potluck BBQs and pledging to each other to live into a visionary American story of unity in diversity, and hope over fear.

Our goal is to stop the reduction of people into a single word or phrase and forge paths for real people with real struggles, real fears, real hopes and real dreams to hear, and to be heard. This is not a “kumbaya” moment. One gathering around the dinner table will not transform our toxic social and political landscape, but it is a start, and we believe start we must.

1454710970397Named one of 15 Faith Leaders to Watch by the Center for American Progress, Rev. Jennifer Bailey is an ordained minister, public theologian, and emerging national leader in multi-faith movement for justice. She is the Founding Executive Director of the Faith Matters Network, a new interfaith community equipping faith leaders to challenge structural inequality in their communities. Jennifer comes to this work with nearly a decade of experience at nonprofits combatting intergenerational poverty.

An Ashoka FellowNathan Cummings Foundation Fellow,  and Truman Scholar, Jennifer earned degrees from Tufts University and Vanderbilt University Divinity School where she was awarded the Wilbur F. Tillett Prize for accomplishments in the study of theology. She writes regularly for a number of publications including Sojourners and the Huffington Post. Her first book, tentatively titled Confessions of a #Millennial #Minister is currently under contract with Chalice Press. Rev. Bailey is an ordained itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

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