Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bearing Witness: One Bread, One Body--The Revolutionary Implications of Communion

Another of those postings in which I feel moved to bear witness to a gift that has come my way, the significance of which isn’t entirely plain to me. And so I write about it, to understand as I give witness.

It’s a gift that will appear insignificant to many other folks, I imagine. It’s this—simply this: last night, I had the chance to attend a potluck supper at a local church that hosts both a black and a white church on its premises. The two churches are separate and independent of each other. But on occasion, one or the other community sponsors an event that brings the two groups together. And that’s what happened last night.

I have ties to both of these churches. My aunt attends the “white” church. Two good friends of mine attend the “black” church. In fact, one of these two friends is that church’s pastor.

Both are Baptist churches, but with slightly different affiliations. The way Baptist churches function is perhaps not clear to those raised in areas of the country where there are not large concentrations of Baptists, as there are in my region.

Each Baptist church considers itself autonomous. It is the people of that particular church who constitute the church. In fact, historically, each Baptist church drafted its own constitution, when the church began, with all the constituting members signing the constitution.

Even so, Baptist churches affiliate, forming local and statewide associations, and then national-level conventions. The church to which my aunt belongs is part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the group that broke from the Southern Baptist Convention when it went fundamentalist and cast its lot definitively with the political agenda of the religious right.

The black church that shares space with my aunt’s church is dually affiliated—to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship as well as to the National Baptist Convention, a largely African-American organization. The two churches happen to be sharing a church building (and educational building, along with a kitchen and “fellowship” hall) because the “white” church is, frankly, dying. Its members are almost all elderly, and new members aren’t joining.

Fortunately, unlike some institutions approaching death, this church has recognized that it has an obligation to spread its resources around as it dies (it also sponsors a food pantry for indigent people, in which my aunt works). And so the church has offered to share its church campus with the “black” church, which is thriving.

This cooperative arrangement has proven wonderful for both churches. If nothing else, it brings together, on an ongoing basis, two communities from two different cultural backgrounds, who share a profession of faith in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. And last night’s potluck supper, sponsored by the “black” church, is an example of what happens when the two groups meet.

My aunt sees my friends in the “black” church many Sundays, since the services of the two churches are back to back. As she leaves her service, she bumps into the members of the other church, headed into the church. She has adopted my friends in the “black” church, and considers them her friends now.

So my invitation to attend this potluck dinner began with an invitation to my aunt from my friends in the “black” church, who then contacted me directly to ask if Steve and I could come to the event, and if I would also please extend the invitation to my brother and his family. The rationale for the potluck supper was a presentation by the pastor’s wife re: her trip to India this past summer. The supper would feature Indian foods prepared by a local restaurant, as well as whatever those attending brought to contribute.

And there would be a slideshow presentation and lecture about Indian culture, led by the pastor’s wife, with a question and answer session about her trip and about what she learned in India. (The pastor’s wife is my other friend in the church—a wonderful person with whom I worked at an historically black college several years ago. In the small world that is Arkansas, we have other ties, too. My uncle was academic v-p of the college she attended, and my aunt taught her English there.)

That’s it, in a nutshell—a church potluck supper with an educational session about Indian culture. That’s the gift about which I feel so grateful this morning, the day following the event.

And what’s the gratitude about, I wonder? First and foremost, I think, it’s gratitude for the opportunity to share a meal with a group of socially engaged, committed believers, whose faith I share, though my own religious tradition is distinct from theirs. Because I’ve been pushed away from the table in my own Catholic tradition, I find it deeply significant when friends in other traditions invite me to their table.

And this was a communion event. Our ritualization of the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist has caused us to forget that when we gather for this central act of worship, we gather around a table. To share a meal. To break bread together.

We commune by making ourselves one (cum, “with” + unio, “one”) with each other through the simple, profound, everyday act of sharing bread. Through the act of breaking and eating bread together, we profess the unity that binds us together in our shared commitment to the way of discipleship. But we do more: we not only express the unity we already have through that commitment to the way of discipleship; we also consolidate and deepen the unity through our act of communion.

We commune with each other in order to effect communion. We continue breaking bread in the ritual act of the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper, over and over, because our communion is never complete. It is always tenuous, threatened, broken. It needs to be restored, made whole, rediscovered. Again and again.

Because my own Catholic church family has driven me from the table, I am profoundly moved when I am invited to the table of other religious traditions. I feel privileged to break bread with other believers who seek me out and actively express their desire to include me at their table.

My heart overflows at such gatherings. And it did last night. Not much of import happened at the meal last night. But everything in the world took place there.

I broke bread with family members and friends—with my aunt, my brother, two of his sons, Steve, and my friends in the church sponsoring the event. The meal began with a blessing by the minister of the “black” church which turned the event into more than an “ordinary” meal (though no meal is ordinary; we remember the Lord’s death and resurrection every time we break bread around a table). It ended with a prayer by the pastor of the “white” church to send us forth and share what had happened to us around the table.

Moreover, I broke bread with members of a church that shares the faith I profess, but which lives across a decisive racial line from me. In the gathering of white believers and black believers around a table, even now, even A.D. 2009, anywhere in the United States, there is still something noteworthy, something to be remarked on.

There is particularly something to be noted in such a gathering in a place like Arkansas, where the pastor of this particular “black” church has recently ruffled feathers in the white community by pointing out the obvious: that the all-white make-up of our state Supreme Court in 2009 returns us to the Jim Crow era of 1910. We have gone backwards as a state in recent years in this respect, at least: in the era of the first African-American president in U.S. history, our highest court in Arkansas is all-white, less racially inclusive than it has been for some decades now.

And pointing this out gets folks into trouble. My friend, the pastor of this church, who is a retired federal judge, suffers slings and arrows when he notes this simple, glaring fact about who we now are as a people—as he did when he was an active judge and was hotly pursued by the state’s judicial ethics commission for making ethical statements, in his capacity as a pastor, that the commission wished to construe as politically partisan.

No place is more segregated in the South, still, than the church. There are historic reasons for the segregation, which go beyond the wish of white churches in the past to exclude black members. There is also the need of the black church to safeguard a precious cultural space of the African-American community, in which black people can exercise autonomy, can control an institution that belongs to them, and can worship in a way that befits their cultural background. The black church was, for many years, the sole institution of which African Americans could claim exclusive ownership, and as such an institution, it became a vehicle for education and political organization, as well as for worship.

So for members of a white and a black church to gather, to break bread around a common table, is still a big deal, in a city in which one can go into almost any restaurant at breakfast, dinner, or supper and find black and white people eating nonchalantly together—and that in itself is a big deal, when one race fought bitterly to continue excluding the other from its tables as recently as the 1960s.

Under such circumstances, communion—breaking bread together at the same table—is a quietly revolutionary act. It overturns social conventions. It effects the communion that the church proclaims through its shared faith, but which is not yet lived in its everyday life.

The simple, quiet act of breaking bread around the same table proves revolutionary in such circumstances, because it moves counter to currents in the surrounding world that need, powerfully, to maintain lines of separation. Where people gather around a table to break bread together, there are no lines of separation—there is no we and no they, for the small time and small space in which one bread is broken at one table.

Just as, for the time and space in which Jesus accepted invitations from lepers, prostitutes, tax-collectors, and other social and religious outcasts, and when he broke bread with them, becoming one with them and taking on himself their outcast status, the rigid lines that kept his social world in order vanished. And so the powers that be, who considered such an eradication of the lines keeping their world in order a revolutionary threat, put him to death.

And so the meal that his followers share, as we walk after him in the way of discipleship, has revolutionary roots, insofar as it commits us to erasing each and every social line that turns one group of us into insiders and other groups into outsiders. It is to that breaching of insider-outsider boundary lines that we commit ourselves each time we break bread together in memory of Jesus—if we are serious about remembering who he was, what he did, and the way to which he calls us.