Feeding the Hungry at the 'Table'

Commentator Ian Wrisley is a minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church. He's working in Colorado now, but he wants to share with us a story about a project he worked on a few years ago in a different job. When he was at a the Covenant Church in Norden, South Dakota, he and his congregation started a program to feed the hungry called "Table."

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Here's a story about food and sustenance from commentator Ian Wrisley. He's a minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church, working in Colorado now. The story is about a project simply called Table.

IAN WRISLEY:

Table started when I was the pastor at the Covenant Church in Lake Norden, South Dakota, population 350 on a good day. The initial idea was simple. On Monday nights, we were going to feed needy people. My friend Paula said there would be more to it than that. She said Table would be different from anything we'd ever seen. She said people would come not just to eat but to talk, to linger over dessert and get to know each other. She said it would spawn an entire community. I said she was crazy. She was right.

From the beginning, Table's always been a family meal, not a soup kitchen. I could tell we had something special when about three weeks into the project, I couldn't tell anymore who was there to help and who was there for a free meal. Neither could you if you were there. Table workers are usually the receivers when it comes to charity, not the givers. They're poor, they're lonely, they're disabled, they're uncertain about God.

Cassie(ph) and her two daughters heard about Table when they went to the Lutheran church's food pantry. Then they came over for a free supper. But now, after they visit the food pantry, they're regulars. And by regular, I mean they cook and set tables and eat and clean up. For them, giving and receiving literally go hand in hand, at least on Mondays.

When we first started Table, Paula's friend Rob thought it was a trap. `You just want to get me in there and preach at me,' he said. Don't think it wasn't suggested. But Jesus said he came not to be served but to serve. And that's what we try to do, too. Eventually, Rob came just to check things out. I deliberately ignored him. Pretty soon, he was a regular on Mondays. Then one Sunday morning, I looked up to see him nervously sharing a hymnal with the equally nervous 14-year-old son of some longtime members, belonging and believing.

Anne(ph) has Huntington's disease. When it got really bad, she had to go into a nursing home. Somehow though, she kept coming to Table. She could hardly walk. Every time she picked up a knife or stirred a pot, I held my breath. But those Table people, it was like they hardly noticed. They never made her feel helpless. Instead they listened to her garbled words, and even when they had to redo her work, they thanked her for helping. And they cried with her as her body and mind slipped away from her.

Many theologians have pointed out that what made Jesus a unique figure in the first century was what they call his radically inclusive table fellowship. He said, `Many will come from the East and the West, the North and the South, and sit down at table in the kingdom of God.' It's true, even in Lake Norden, everyone's there, good and bad, pious and agnostic, rich and poor. The table's big enough.

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