Preparing a Welcome Table

By Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
Published This Week At Plymouth, November 19, 2021

“And so they gazed nakedly upon their own fear transferred; a fear of the black and the old, a terror of the unknown as well as of the deeply known. Some of those who saw her there on the church steps spoke words about her that were hardly fit to be heard, others held their pious peace; and some felt vague stirrings of pity, small and persistent and hazy as if she were an old collie turned out to die.”
—Alice Walker, The Welcome Table
As the nation turns its attention to observance of the Thanksgiving holiday and families and communities plan their meals and gatherings, I have found this holiday to be the time when people willingly express gratitude and hospitality. A cultural myth has risen around Thanksgiving: families debate and fight over politics, football, or the latest prodigal coming back after years away. While that has been the experience of far too many people, I have seen another side. I have seen people take seriously the practice of reflecting on what they are grateful for and opening their homes or sharing their abundance with others. Thanksgiving features familiar images and testimonies of a welcome table filled with plenty. I hope we do not take our welcome table at home or church for granted nor assume that it is as wide and inclusive as we think it is.
Speaking of the welcome table, Alice Walker authored a powerful story of the same name about an old Black woman who shows up for worship at a church to which she neither belongs as a member nor belongs based upon the color of her skin. She had done this many times before. The pastor and the ushers quickly remind her this is not her church and ask her to leave each time. Undeterred, the old Black woman takes a seat in the front pew. However, the church women would refuse to sit and worship until someone removed the old woman. The men obliged the demands of their wives and physically picked up the old lady and threw her out the back door.
I revisit this heartbreaking story from time to time, especially during Thanksgiving, to remind myself the church remains challenged by the culture and context in which it is found. The rules, beliefs, and prejudices learned in the home can be far more effective in shaping our feelings about and behavior toward the stranger than the Bible we read or the theology we profess. This story invites me to discern if my welcome is wide enough to include those who stoke within me “a terror of the unknown as well as of the deeply known.” In the name of peace, tradition, and order, it can be easy to exclude the other or withhold the blessings of service and community to some of the most vulnerable people among us. As we gather for Thanksgiving, I pray that we allow the movement of gratitude and hospitality we feel during the season to prompt us to expand our welcome table, whether in our homes or our church. May it be so.
DeWayne L. Davis