As ugliness becomes normative and polarization drives an even deeper wedge between opposing camps of people, I wonder how well our churches invite diversity? Do we “tolerate differences”, hoping to bring folks around to our (enlightened) stance? Do we invite growth in our congregation just so long as the newcomers don’t change our stale vision of doing ministry? Who is warmly welcomed around the communion table and who wouldn’t dare to push through our doors?
Our church probed the issue of offering a wider welcome through an unlikely art project. We envisioned setting a table with each chair representing one group or population that might be rejected in the setting of a church. Of course, those “outcasts” or peripheral people will change with each community. So we asked people in our small study groups to list the three categories of people they believed face the greatest discrimination in our North American Christian Church. From their suggestions we put together a Top 12 list and they became the guests at the table. In no particular order these were the esteemed twelve: Ex-convict; Not My Denomination; Pierced, Tattooed or Non-traditionally Adorned; Those with Disabilities; Poor; Not My Race; Mentally Ill; LGBTQ; Loud in Worship; Homeless; Divorced; and Middle Eastern. A 13th chair at the table was set for the host, Jesus.
We asked for donations of old chairs. Some were quite nice and sturdy. Others had…real personality. It was a perfect mix! We asked church folks to adopt one of the groups on the list and be ready to transform an outcast chair into a representation of their unique population. Not surprisingly, most people adopted the group that was personal to them in some way. After worship one Sunday our adoptive artists looked over the chairs and chose one that lent itself to the transformation they had already begun to imagine. We had a few gaps in our list so we pulled in unsuspecting people from coffee hour and convinced them to take a chair home. It’s amazing how beautifully our guest list was adopted out to just the right people. Folks had one month to prayerfully design a chair that told a story about their people. Each artist was invited to write an artist’s statement about their work. These were powerful, vulnerable stories that were often auto-biographical in nature.
I had also asked my brother-in-law, a woodworker in the church, to construct a table. I told him it had to be long enough for 6-7 chairs on each side. It could be quite narrow. I would have been happy with a plywood creation but he hauled a fallen tree out of the forest in January. He took it to the sawmill to have it planed on a day warm enough for the oil in the giant saw to flow. A tree felled in a storm became a long, beautiful table with metallic crosses inlaid onto each table leg. It was made without nails and didn’t have enough time to dry out before it was hauled into our church.
Our gathering date to set up the tableau was Ash Wednesday. As I led worship and we imposed the sign of the cross on our foreheads, the youth group assembled the table and thirteen guest chairs. We decided that we would have the chairs facing away or out from the table during Lent, representative of their outsider status. We put a plate in front of each with their particularity written on the plate. We had a pitcher and plate with faux bread on it in front of the Jesus chair. We placed a wooden bowl at one end of the table with index cards and pens available for writing out a prayer. As people exited the sanctuary from the Ash Wednesday service they were confronted with the Open Table?, newly on display.
I loved hearing people’s reactions to this 13 by 7-foot artistic representation of the Last Supper. The artists’ statements were collated into a book and the stories they told were beautiful. Church members invited friends to visit the church during the week to look at our table. Quietly it gave testimony to the stories of those who are often overlooked, disliked or flat-out rejected in our sacred spaces. Prayers were left in the bowl that were heartfelt. On Easter morning the chairs were turned around to face the table, showing full inclusion in the Body of Christ. The resurrected Messiah loves and serves all, calling us to do the same.
The Open Table? creation took on a life of its own. I was asked to speak at a Red Cord Society event about the project. Other speakers came in with a thin notebook holding their speech and I enlisted the help of my family to transport a 200-pound table and 13 chairs into the sanctuary of the host church! All ages were drawn to these inanimate objects, finding themselves or their loved ones among the cherished “guests”. A year later our application to have the tableau entered into the Grand Rapids ArtPrize competition was accepted. We were allowed to display it in the same church where I had spoken the previous year. Again, the bowl was on the table inviting the throngs of visitors to this unique art event to add their prayer to those of others. I visited our ArtPrize entry a couple of times and watched as people circulated around the table reflectively, being moved by the message of loving inclusion.
Open Table? had a lifespan, as do we. The chairs have since been un-decorated or given away as designed. The table is now about 100 pounds lighter than it was on Ash Wednesday because the wood has had time to dry out. It is stored not far from my in-laws’ home and brought out when a large table needs to be set for family dinners. The bowl of prayers ended up in my office and I was moved to read the range of sacred expressions left behind. In their variety they represent a diverse community that values the same gifts in life. These prayers give us a keen insight into the inner yearnings of our hearts to find a place to belong. While they are offered personally, many of them could speak for all of us. So let me share some of them in hopes that these gifts from our Open Table? will bring you more fully into God’s presence:
My son Dan needs a better job. He is deaf.
I pray that every person in Grand.Rapids (and elsewhere) knows they belong and they have a seat at the table. NO EXCEPTIONS.
Thank you God for the many things you have given me. Help my non-giving.
Lord, Help us see peace around us and give us patience to listen to one another.
Peace on earth and pray for the victims of the Las Vegas mass shootings.
Lord-Please help those with need. Help all SEE and strive to be of assistance to the less fortunate — Your daughter.
I pray in thankfulness for my new job as a social worker.
Take away my pain from my past.
NEVER give up for God shall reward you.
Pray for Gordon whose cancer has returned.
A happy death for my aged mother.
Pray for those who are lost.
God, thank you for letting this person know she is priceless beyond possessions.
Lord Jesus, Give me wisdom, understanding, and knowledge to do what is pleasing to you and excellent health.
And prayers written by children:
I love God because He is so nice and sweet. I am thankful for everything He does. (M.M. age 4)
Pray for my dad to stop drinking.
I hope she gets a home and money.
In Jesus’ Name. Amen!