Table Fellowship: Re-Imagining Vocation

Part two in a series of posts about a collaborative project at Wingate University, resulting in a first-year course called Food and Faith: Health and Happiness Around the Many Tables of Our Lives.

A series of posts about a collaborative project at Wingate University, resulting in a first-year course called Food and Faith: Health and Happiness Around the Many Tables of Our Lives.

In our last post, we asked was whether a cosmic horizon of meaning for vocation––one inspired by Darwin’s entangled bank––would help navigate some campus challenges in a post-COVID world? Our answer was emphatically “yes.” Why? Because a cosmic horizon reveals that we are caught up in inescapable networks of giving and taking, feeding and being fed. Thus, by our existence we are given a place setting at a great cosmic feast and festival. This worldview appreciates vocatio as James Fowler does: the discovery, cultivation, and integration of rich patterns of our whole lives, including our plates, palates, and tables.

Embracing vocation as calling in this context inextricably grounds it in three central tenets: We are all interdependent, we live in overlapping networks of mutuality, and co-creativity is central to life and flourishing. With these tenets in mind, we have developed a Food and Faith course set to unfold in the Fall of 2022. This posts muses on the cornerstone metaphor that grounds our commitment in this course: table fellowship.

We are sentient beings who encounter the world through our senses. We emerge from a warm, dark aquatic beginning to enter our loud and blustery new world fully awake with sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. And when we do emerge it is into the hands of another. We do not understand them at first, but their tones and touch embrace and comfort us. Slowly we learn the language of those who love us and some of the most tender times of teaching and conversation and love are expressed around the time of food delivery.

Food is a unique communication medium that involves all of the senses. We often smell cinnamon and ginger and are transported to days of youth at Christmas. Food tastes can immediately open a door of remembrance, a sensual delight. The ritual of food preparation around the ancient family chopping block has transcended time and space; by new generations it is carried forward. Food also becomes a sacred space for those who are grieving; the threshold of death is crossed with casseroles. The table can be a place of quiet conversation, of leaning into vulnerability, of transparency and disclosure in safe space. Table fellowship is powerful. This is a reality we invite the students to participate in: to feel the dirt and plants; reflect on their complex relationship with food; smell strawberries and fall leaves; hear each other’s stories; sit side by side and share overlapping patterns of life.

The Last Supper by Palma il Vecchio, National Gallery for Foreign Art, Sofia, Bulgaria; public domain.

As the Hebrew people were being shaped in post-exilic life, the Seder has lost none of its power to shape and teach and to re-member. Jesus took that same meal and re-interpreted its focus to re-membering––bringing core aspects of his ministry to embodied life (construction and building) rather than dis-membering and driving apart. Re-calling and re-membering roots those around the table in the present moment yet still connects to that which went before. How do we connect our students to the deep roots of our food systems? bodies in relationship? We aim to engage hunger and thirst by deeply listening while we gather around the many tables they encounter on campus.

John leaned closely upon Jesus’ chest at the last supper to listen closely. Oboe dire from the Latin means to give close attention, to listen intently, to really hear someone else.  How often do we re-call and re-member at table with friends and family? We linger at the table to talk, laugh, and cry; we share our lives–– past and present. This is an expression of the cosmic belonging to the universe. Table fellowship is sacred space and roots us in the entangled bank, revealing the patterns of our life: our vocatio as planetary citizens inhabiting a sacred cosmos.

Drew Dellinger on Martin Luther King’s vision of interconnectivity, table fellowship, and justice.

The table also exposes our prejudices and predispositions by who we invite. We may pronounce our values and posture about racism and inclusivity, but who sits at our table? When we asked a rising senior, who will be the TA for our Food and Faith course, to reflect on what table-fellowship means to her, she offered us the following:

“Table Fellowship” reminds me of the debates from Acts about clean and unclean eating. In chapter 11, Peter is questioned by the other apostles in Judea who wonder why he is willing to eat with the Gentiles, or the “uncircumcised men” (11:3). Peter quotes God, stating that “what God has made clean, you must not call profane” (11:9) as he explains his willingness to partake in foods that he had previously forbidden from his own diet. He goes on to say that there is no “distinction between them and us” (11:12). They are unified through the acknowledgement of their diversities. Peter’s narrative here may seem simple, but it is indicative of an important aspect of table fellowship. Sure, we have all tried new foods before, or had dinner with new friends. But how often do we choose to sit at a table with the intention of unity? Table fellowship challenges us to appreciate through experience the differences of those sitting right beside us. God has made our table clean by calling us to take on the challenge of diversifying our plate. At the table, there is no distinction between ourselves and the people we are eating with. Our togetherness is blessed.

Mallory Challis, Undergraduate Religion Major

This student reminded us that Peter breached the cultural and religious norms of table fellowship because he understood the unfathomable depths of God’s welcome and hospitality as beyond the meager constraints offered at the time. But does our campus and table fellowship display the fullness of the image of the heavenly banquet? What would it be like if the entry into the college experience could be more like Harry Potter’s experience––new students to Hogwarts where the banquet is set? These scenes depict an engagement of the whole person, and it is clear s/he belongs, has a place, is prepared for and is welcome––and fed abundantly. Difference is traversed, life patterns shared in the breaking of bread and the occasional chicken and macaroni pie. Humility is palatable and rooted in understanding our origins, our hummus, our literal groundedness and interconnection spanning from the cosmic to subatomic and visceral level. We as soulful soil, are welcome to the feast of life, and we discover the patterns of our vocatio when we enter into the sacred cadence of feeding and being fed, listening and speaking, learning and teaching.

Our next blog will describe how this course will be a community engaged course––a pedagogical process that builds authentic table fellowship on and off campuses. We believe this way of teaching content intentionally re-roots our students, faculty, and community members into the “inescapable networks of mutuality tied into a single garment of destiny” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and this will help promote retention, satisfaction, scholarly dialogue, and campus-community transformation.   

This project is a collaboration between Catherine Wright, Shea Watts, and Harry Workman. Catherine Wright is a transplanted Canadian ecotheologian with degrees in Zoology, Education, and Christian ethics. She is the author of two books, Creation, God and Humanity: Engaging the Mystery of Suffering within the Sacred Cosmos (2017), and an interactive, practical ecotheology book (2020). Shea Watts is a Southern-born theologian whose deep dive into animal studies opened his eyes to the interconnectedness of life, which has resulted in his exploration of the intersection of animals, food production, and faith. His forthcoming book Where The Spirit Is explores the political contours of the early Pentecostal movement in the US. Rev. Dr. Harry Workman is a Wingate alum, a bowtie wearing North-Carolinian, and he is affectionately called the “Pastor of Disaster” since he serves communities devastated by crises. His dissertation explored the weaponizing of food via the green revolution, chemical revolution and industrialization of farming in the south in the 80s. He mourned the loss of Sabbath rest for the land and explored the intimate relationship between the ground, food, farmer, and feast.

Author: Catherine Wright

Catherine Wright (B.Sc, B.Ed, M.Div, Ph.D.) is an interdisciplinary Christian ecotheologian working at Wingate University (North Carolina) in the Religion and Philosophy Department. As a scholar-practitioner, she has helped to create a new institute on campus grounded in the principles of sustainable development called The Collaborative for the Common Good and was chosen to be its first Executive Director on August 1, 2020. Her thesis work focused on the implications of the new cosmology -- cosmogenesis -- on contemporary understandings of human suffering which is the topic of her first text: "Creation, God, and Humanity: Engaging the Mystery of Suffering within the Sacred Cosmos" (Paulist Press, 2017). She was ecstatic when it won an Association of Catholic Publishers (ACP) Excellence in Publishing award in the category of Theology in 2018. As a Christian ethicist, she issues via the intertwining lenses of eco-theology, liberation theology, ecofeminism, sustainability, and service-learning and community engagement. She constantly strives to communicate her Christ-centered approach to physical, social and spiritual healing in the many talks, fundraisers, think-tanks, lyceums, advisory boards, retreats, field trips, and panels she participates in or hosts, and with the student organizations, she advises on campus. After immersing herself in the ethos of Wingate and teaching a diverse number of courses such as Global Perspectives on Ethics, Systematic Theology, Religion and Science, Theological Responses to Our Ecological Crisis, Suffering and Joy, Christian Missions in the 21st Century, and EcoJustice another text was imagined and published in 2020 with Paulist Press. Her book is called “Caring for Our Common Home: A Practical Guide to Laudato Si'” and is intended to invite readers to new just behaviors with interactive exercises aimed to change hearts, heads, and hands. It gives new life to the tenet of being the "hands and feet of Christ" and since its publication, several book groups have used it as a guide. Catherine also loves supporting Creation Care and Catholic Social Justice teams across many dioceses as well as spending time with her family and friends in the great outdoors -- taking time to do some ‘holy noticing.’ A great joy for her is to work alongside passionate people of faith in her local community who are laboring to empower others to wholeness and happiness. Her fur babies keep her grounded as does her gardens, her daughter Draven, and husband Todd.

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