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

Do Not Avert your Gaze

Along the Way Published 02/12/2020
by Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

In the age of cellphones and social media, it has never been easier for people to film and capture live images of arguments, violence, and disasters occurring in real-time. From the murders of unarmed Black people by law enforcement to confrontations over wearing masks in public places to the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by extremists attempting to prevent the certification of the U.S. Presidential election, we have been made witnesses to the violent underbelly of our culture, politics, and law enforcement.

While we have known that such dangers have always been present around us, thanks to viral video clips, we are no longer allowed the benefit of plausible deniability about white supremacist violence or misconduct by law enforcement. Viral video clips are revealing some inconvenient truths about us. These truths are creating discomfort and anxiety that will only grow as we see more.

But we cannot avert our gaze.

The rise of viral videos is a form of truth-telling that is not easily denied. Clips of law enforcement violence against unarmed Black people; rallies of angry mobs with cheering insults and invectives aimed at women, immigrants, and people of color; and armed white supremacists overrunning legislative houses are telling truths that shatter our myths of exceptionalism and unimpeded progress that we’ve relied on to assure us all is well.

In the Gospels, Jesus’ ministry was all about seeing and truth-telling. He did not look away, rationalize, or accommodate the poverty, injustice, and dispossession of the most vulnerable around him. He did not avert his gaze from people’s suffering at the hands of the elites and the empire. On the contrary, the Gospel writers recount stories of him stopping at the scene of suffering, directly intervening in the most tragic of circumstances, and confronting the dangers of his culture and time to serve even when it was dangerous or inconvenient. Jesus did not avert his gaze from the ugliness around him, nor did he hide from the truth about the injustice and violence oppressing the people.

I know the violence we are seeing throughout social media is unsettling and traumatizing. I do not advise seeking it out as a matter of practice. However, we should not be willfully uninformed or unmoved by what is going on.

I suspect that much of the anxiety, resentment, and uncertainty many feel about race, law enforcement, and the pace of cultural and political change arises from the loss of innocence that comes with the exposure of the extent of the hate and violence plaguing vulnerable communities. But we need more truth-telling if we are ever going to confront inequality, white supremacy, and disenfranchisement. We cannot look away from the oppression, exploitation, and domination that distort personhood and rob people of their dignity.

I know it hurts the eyes, but do not avert your gaze.