Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Welcome Table: Further Reflections

After I blogged about the welcome table this past Sunday, I began doing a bit of online reading.  The Mountain Dulcimer Noter and Drone blog, to which I provided a link in my Sunday posting, sparked my interest in the history of the old American hymn "Welcome Table."  My online reading has led me to YouTube, where I've now listened to a series of recordings of the hymn by various artists and groups.  I want to share three of these with readers.

The first of these, which I've shared at the top of this posting, is a stylish jazz rendition by Bill Brickey and Sue Demel of the Old Town School of Folk Music.  I like it for its sophistication and for how it captures the powerful use to which the African-American Christian tradition has put the symbol of a table to which all are invited and from which none is excluded.

The second rendition, which I've also just now uploaded, draws me because it's simply plain fun.  I love the verve of Jonah and the Wailers (and that name!) as they take a hymn with deep roots in Appalachian and African-American cultures and sing it for an Australian audience at Mosman Art Gallery in Sydney in December 2010.  The power of music to reach across cultural and historical lines and grab people living in very different times and places.  The power of African and African-American kinetic performing traditions to spark movement even in us frozen Anglo types, with our hesitancy to let emotion sway us.  Fun to watch--and the group does a wonderful job singing the hymn, in my opinion.

This final video uploaded by a YouTube user called Mobilecheese is especially powerful for me.  It reminds me that one of the primary reasons the theme of the welcome table resonates so loudly in my soul is that I've linked the notion of including/excluding people from tables to my own history in the Civil Rights struggle of the American South.

I remember the days captured in the opening shots of the video, when it was a criminal act and an act of political defiance for a person of color to claim a place at a "white" table in my homeland.  I remember the shock that the simple act of claiming a place at the table elicited in us white Christians of the South, when those engaging in this act were black.

I remember how excruciating it was for us, in our white churches, to begin asking whether we had any real scriptural warrant for excluding people from membership in our churches because of their pigmentation.  The question split our churches.  It turned friend against friend and family member against family member.

It did so in my own family's Southern Baptist church, sparking my dissatisfaction with the church and my pilgrimage to the Catholic church, in which--in our small south Arkansas town, at least--black and white Christians worshiped side by side, shared the same common table, without fanfare.  

I love the welcome table symbol as well, of course, because it's deeply woven into the fabric of the Judaeo-Christian tradition to which I belong.  I've written on this blog in the past about the "homecoming" Sunday that my grandmother's childhood Baptist church celebrated one Sunday each June as I was growing up.  I've written about how the homecoming was celebrated not merely with singing and praying in the churchhouse, but with a "dinner on the grounds" under the semicircle of ancient oak trees lining the driveway up to the church, where trestle tables laden with food were set out in between morning services and afternoon hymn-singing.

Tables to which everyone was invited, where everyone was welcome.  Tables full of scrumptious home-cooked food displayed proudly by those (almost always women, except that an elderly man with long, scary mustaches always brewed coffee for the gathering in an old iron wash pot, where he stirred the coffee with what looked like a mop to my child's eyes) who had cooked the food, of which anyone at the gathering might partake.  An eschatological experience for me as a child . . . .

And, of course, all of these memories, the depth of these symbols and experiences in my soul, cannot do otherwise than bring heart pain right now, as I see the church that I chose in the 1960s precisely because its table welcomed both black and white believers without distinction, setting up barrier (Omaha) after barrier (Newark) after barrier (Baltimore) after barrier (San Francisco) after barrier (Chicago) after barrier (Minnesota) to me and to my sort.

While the 97% of married Catholics who practice contraception (or the large percentage of younger Catholics cohabiting, or those masturbating--all of which violate the same sexual norms used to condemn gay folks) never once hear the kind of sermons we gay folks hear, informing us that we must not approach the Lord's table, and aren't welcome at the table . . . .

Any church at which questions should even be asked about who is welcome at the table of Jesus Christ --who invited all to his table and made a point of eating with sinners--is not a church worth people's  respect and support.

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