Dear Folks,

As Thanksgiving approaches, I have been thinking about tables, about when and how and whether we break bread together, about welcome and inclusion and why we still find that hard sometimes. Stories of eating and drinking together across accustomed lines of difference punctuate the scripture: water at the well with the Samaritan woman, dinner with tax collectors and Pharisees, Peter discovering that God shows no partiality when it comes to house guests and meal-mates. The stories resonate literally in our bellies: the child in us remembers that nothing is more basic than food and learning how to share bread and ourselves.

In 1967 I was a Head Start kid in eastern Tennessee. A year later, in the spring of 1968, my dad dropped out of seminary, in part because of his school’s reaction to the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My father has a complicated story, but one thing he was clear about was the equality of humankind, without regard for race or creed or class. The Episcopal church at that time in the south, however, was less expansive. In some places, the church that was calling him to be a priest was more likely to support the Jim Crow status quo than the cause for civil rights, and he lost his faith and calling over that crisis. His separation from religion compelled the loss of everything material we had—home, jobs, old friends—and set our family spinning into a dark whirl of anger and sadness. Years later he told me that he thought saving his integrity was worth the cost, but I wasn’t so sure.

We moved to Little Rock where he and my mother had family, and where my grandmother had a house we could squat in for free. It was a complicated gift: in some ways my father never recovered from the shame of returning to his Momma’s house, feeling like a failure as a son and a father. As far as I know, his family of origin never asked him what had precipitated his withdrawal from seminary. He struggled with “feeling blue” as he called it, most likely undiagnosed clinical depression, and worked as a laborer until he turned 65. I also didn’t think to ask him why he was sad until I was 1000 miles away at college. By then I had been mad at him for over a decade, because he seemed so aimless and because we were poor, but a longing to know him finally won out over my righteous pride. Beginning with a letter written when I was 19, we slowly began to build a relationship. For a year in my 20’s, we met over coffee at McDonald’s on Saturday mornings, our version of strangers at the well, learning to be honest, sorting out trustworthiness, risking intimacy.

We found each other at that table in the fast-food restaurant, an altar as sacred as any church could build.

I hope you will make a date with someone you’ve been meaning to talk with—even if that person is long gone and your conversation will take place only in a journal and your heart. It is never too late to ask someone “What hurts?” and share how their choices have had an impact on you… It’s not too late to get to know someone you’ve seen at church or the grocery store for a decade… This may be the day for you to reach across some superficial divide of race or class and meet in the courtyard for coffee.

Wherever people are breaking open their hearts and hurts, there is an altar in the world. Join me at that table.