The first thing we need to know about the old Negro spiritual "I'm Going to Sit at the Welcome Table" is that it originates among people in bondage. It was developed and sung by slaves, by people who had no welcome at all in the world in which they lived. They had no welcome because they owned nothing at all. They were, quite precisely, the owned. There was no welcome or no table for those singing this song to own.
So, I'm going to sit at the welcome table: this is an unthinkably bold declaration on the part of people who own nothing, including themselves, and who are by definition the nobody in the socioeconomic world they inhabit, that in God's eyes, things appear radically different. This is an unthinkably bold assertion that, in God's eyes, the distinctions that matter above all — they matter for everything — in the world in which the singers live, the distinctions free and slave, simply do not exist. They're not there at all.
They're not there at the table God sets for all of God's children, free and slave alike, somebody and nobody alike. So that this song which originates among people in bondage can now speak to people who have not themselves experienced slavery, or may not descend from enslaved people.
I'm going to feast on milk and honey: a recurrent theme in the testimony of former slaves collected by WPA workers in the 1930s is that slaves were often fed in ways that, whether by design or by happenstance, radically underscored the distinction between enslaved human beings and free human beings. Many former slaves report having been fed cornmeal mush poured into troughs, into hollowed-out logs around which they were expected to kneel like animals and slop.
Testimony I've just read from a former slave living in the county in which I came of age in south Arkansas reports that the mistress of his plantation would pour mush on top of a tree stump and call the slave children to the stump. They'd kneel there and feed like animals.
Slaves did not own tables, unless they crafted makeshift ones for their slave cabins. They were not fed at tables. Tables were things reserved for owners and not the owned. The food eaten at tables was radically different from the feed slopped from hollowed-out logs or from the tops of tree stumps.
Slaves did not eat milk and honey. They slopped mush which was sometimes seasoned with cooked greens. Meat was a rarity. Honey and other sweeteners were a delicacy served only at table. Mush was cooked in salted water, not milk, not cream, not butter, foods of too much value to be wasted in preparing food that was on the level of animal feed.
As with the assertion, "I'm going to sit at the welcome table," the declaration, I'm going to feast on milk and honey, is a radical, unthinkable claim to ownership of a table. It's a claim to the right to sit at a table and not kneel at a feed trough. It's an assertion of the right to eat what is eaten at tables reserved for owners from which the owned were excluded: the right to eat milk and honey and not slop.
I'm going to walk the streets of glory, or I'll go home to live with Jesus: these lines, and I'm going to feast on milk and honey, assert the humanity of those singing the song in a socioeconomic system that radically assaults their humanity. And they assert, as well, that God kneels with those forced to slop mush from hollowed-out logs and excluded from tables. And that God does not sit with those who sit at table to eat their milk and honey while denying tables to other human beings . . . .
I'm going to tell God how you treat me: for people who did not have ownership even over their own bodies and lives, this is another breathtaking insistence that God cares. That God hears the cries of the nobody. The nobodies have a claim to God's ear that somebodies, with all their power, wealth, and influence, lack.
And God will one day shock those who imagine that their power, wealth, and influence make the world and provide superhuman status for them by spreading a welcome table to which the nobodies are invited, welcomed, and fed as if they, too, count for something. As if they, too, matter as human beings.
As if the injustices visited upon these nobodies by the somebodies of the world matter to God, who listens attentively as the nobodies tell God how they've been treated by those who imagine they own the world . . . .
And, finally, most remarkable of all: All God's children going to sit together. This is perhaps the most unthinkable claim of all in a world in which free people and enslaved people never sat at table together. Because the table itself was a symbol, one of the most important of all, of the gap that separated the two groups of human beings into somebodies and nobodies.
To allow slaves to sit at the table with free people was to turn the entire world upside down. It was to suggest that people denied humanity actually possessed humanity, and that treating them as chattel property and pretending they were akin to animals was grossly immoral and unjust.
The vision of a table at which everyone sits together is one that explodes worlds. It's one that explodes worlds in which some people count and others do not count, in which some people have a right to tables and others do not enjoy that right, in which some people deserve food and others do not deserve to be fed, or deserve to be fed slop as they kneel at animal troughs.
So, venerable fathers of my Roman Catholic church: you may, if you wish, continue to talk until you are blue in the face about who's worthy to sit at your table and who's not. But no matter how long you talk, I will continue to believe that it's God who makes the final decision about who will sit at the table that belongs to God, and not to you. I will continue to believe that all God's children are going to sit at the welcome table one of these days.
And, yes, I'm going to tell God how you've treated me — though I intend to plead with Her not to deal with you as cruelly and mercilessly as you have dealt with me. Because no human being deserves such treatment, and certainly not by those who imagine they are the final judges and arbiters of who may sit at the table that belongs to God alone . . . .