What happens when you put a huge table in the street, set out tons of food, and invite anyone who wants to come?
It becomes a neuroses-inducing, moving, joyful adventure.
Back in 2014, a group of Chattanoogans saw something that was invisible to many others: a divider in the center of their city. One side of the divide was represented by a park that hosted concerts and acted as a hub for Chattanooga's startup community. On the other side was another park down the street, known for its homeless population and tough reputation. This group of concerned citizens decided to literally bridge that divide, and they did it with one great big table. The result was a shared meal among 700 people willing to meet at the table in the middle.
This first event was meant to be a one-time occurrence. But the idea was so popular that it has become a Thanksgiving tradition in Chattanooga – and has now spread to other cities, including Nashville, Tennessee.
"We wanted to have homeless sitting next to people who have a little more comfort, old next to young," stated Shaun Breslin, who coordinated the Nashville event alongside Meredith Callis. "We just wanted the community to truly come together. And what better way to do that than food?"
The idea truly was irresistible. The participants of this first occurrence of Gratefull: Nashville found out about the event either by word of mouth or through social media mentions. There were not elaborate ads or videos. Just a simple invitation to take part in something good. People responded – and the tractor-trailer length table was filled to near capacity.
Sponsors responded as well. For every couple people who showed up to eat, there was a person or local business that donated food, utensils, decorations, and time. Most did not know each other.
Some people donated but were reluctant to stay and eat. For many it was likely that busyness kept them from attending in full (the event was on a Monday). Or perhaps it was the tension of sharing an intimate action with strangers. There's a possibility, though, that it was a feeling of discomfort in receiving something valuable – like food and fellowship – for free.
Jesus tells a parable (a metaphorical story) about a man throwing a banquet – kind of like this particular banquet. Those who are initially invited are reluctant to come. So the man sends out helpers to invite anyone and everyone – and they keep inviting until the banquet is full. The question such a story inspires pertains to why those who were first invited were reluctant to attend.
As is often the case, Jesus' parable is a metaphor for God and God's love. The point that Jesus tried to make was that we are invited into God's love – and all the extravagance that comes with enjoying it. But we have to accept the invitation, which, for many reasons, some of us are reluctant to do. How curious it is that God is more willing to love than we are to be loved.
Around the big ol' table at Gratefull: Nashville, we got to both love and be loved. Strangers cleaned plates for strangers. Everyone took a personal interest in someone new and not just in who they came out with. Fears regarding religious factions or political affiliations were left aside as participants searched for commonality.
It is small wonder that Jesus put a table at the center of Christian practice. A visit to most any Christian worship space reinforces that Christians are people called to a table. With the metaphor of the table before us, Gratefull: Nashville became a living parable of God's will for humanity. It is a will that diverse people come together seeking each other's benefit and rejoicing in their commonality. It is a will that we not conform simply to one another's expectations, but that we allow ourselves to be transformed by love. It is a will that we sit together and enjoy something extravagant while we laugh and share.
Gratefull: Nashville gave me a taste of that in reality. And for that, I am grateful.
Ryan Dunn is the author. He, unsurprisingly, lives in Nashville with his family. He works as the Minister of Online Engagement for United Methodist Communications--which means he writes a lot on this web site.