By Robyn Afrik
In my family, the supper table was more than just a time to eat. It was a symbol for non-negotiable times of day when kid and parent come together. No matter how busy, tired, or distracted one felt, physical presence was expected.
And if weekly dinner time wasn’t enough, Sundays stepped it up a notch. The lead matriarch, my grandma, dutifully prepared a homecoming feast for all. She did this representing a Dutch-German blooded father’s side, carrying a quiet but stubborn strength in all her movements.
Before pulling up in the driveway, we could already smell the love being mixed in to the endless mountains of whipped potatoes, a cradle made just for rivers of butter melting simultaneously into my impatience. Seven-layer salads, green bean casserole, and a canned fruit salad conveniently hid my Grandmother’s homemade chunky applesauce, a food group that should have been kept for desert. It tasted of endless cinnamon and sugar on my lips, a fragrance made to stick in little-girl ponytails long after we’d eat.
Grandpa was the one and only barrier that stood between us all and the food. His non-verbal cues were louder than Grandma’s stern look and a clear signal that it was time. Gathered ‘round a line of playing card tables held together with white linen cloth, our heads were bowed in silence, waiting. And then, it happened. A cousin snickered or spilled out a laugh before it’s followed up with a kick under the table. This moment of tension created a series of words proceeding out of the mouth of a man sitting at the head of the table. No one could quite understand what was being said, but we all knew what “Amen” meant in a context like ours.
A beautiful wave of forks and spoons lifted into mouths through choreographed dance; glasses clinked to the tune of others fighting over the last piece of you-name-it. It was both a symphonic chaos and hallelujah celebration. Just after our last bite, sometimes going back for thirds, our bellies begged us to be put to bed for that Sunday afternoon nap.
This experience, multiplied over the many years to follow, created grooves in my mind. Grooves reinforcing just how great our family was. Because sometimes we laughed. And other times, we laughed at “those folk” because we didn’t know how else to respond. But we loved, hard. We got weekly updates on each other’s big life events, our oldest Uncle always weighing in; he called it “teaching without invitation.” There were times when all we had was blank stares, arms folded across chests of flannel in the winters, sitting across from each other on church basement folding chairs in a circle. My feet would swim in the carpet, listening for someone to break the moment.
These interactions allowed us to escape from the rest of the world. A world that didn’t always understand us and quite frankly, we didn’t really care. Instead, we became solidified in our identity.
For my grandma to bring extended cousins, aunts, and uncles represented a lineage of shared common values and beliefs growing beyond a group of twenty at a rate faster than our retirement funds. We came from two towns over, squeezing into one cozy living room, all to honor her.
As I grew older, raising children with a husband whose culture, color, and background represents a continent vastly different than mine, our shared desire to continue this practice in ideal was no different. Coming together for a meal, in my husband’s culture, also meant that anyone stopping by could join us. No questions, pre-planning, or call ahead required.
But as time repurposed our family’s priorities, Sunday dinners started becoming difficult for us all. The young became old and mobility for others became impossible. More of us moved away and started having families of our own. Pretty soon, the times we did make happen uncovered newly formed opinions, identities, and experiences that did not always align with each other like they used to.
At first, it was subtle. The adults in our family would call it “part of a normal, growing up experience.” But then, when some of us didn’t grow up or out of it fast enough, the conversations started becoming hard. And that solidified identity we were so good at mirroring in love many Sundays ago at the dinner table started chipping away at the very thing we thought was great.
No one in my family would dare say that life is not without multiple experiences; how we respond to them matters. Over time, my family moved through a list of such things: sickness, relationship challenges, living into or out of our faith, politics, and even discerning what to wear. We became more conscious about how each of us expressed our values now vs how we were taught.
Dinnertime revealed how much we held on to (and how deeply we held on to) our own ideas, opinions, and values, so much so that our time was spent interacting with the parts of us we wanted to remember vs the person who was changed. And those beautiful but misunderstood parts of ourselves weren’t quite sure how to communicate and become more known.
Today, I realize how my family is a microcosm of what was to come. Because in some ways, we’re all living in a society termed The Age of Loneliness. We’re more connected than ever before, and simultaneously isolated. We keep to our own, lacking the energy to create spaces that provide understanding into the why and how of what we are and identify with.
But then I got a call to come to supper. Not just any supper, but The People’s Supper.
On October 5th, 2018, the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan was chosen as one of five key locations in the United States to address the divides we experience today by simply having supper together. The People’s Supper hosts gatherings all around the country, proving that a group of thoughtful people who differ from one another politically, culturally, racially, and socioeconomically in a time when our world is more divided than ever could sit down over a shared meal and engage in meaningful conversation.
I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical. The divides and the way we operate in our grooves today cannot fix the years and thought patterns enough for me to make this worth my time. Not to mention the level of trust with total strangers.
But I began to think about my friends, the ones I held so dearly. Despite my fondness for them, my friendships disintegrated due to the inability to come together and just listen to our why vs our what. I stopped practicing bridge-building and before I knew it, my personal circles started keeping some folk in and others out. It was not any better.
So I decided to help facilitate. To invite others, to be more than a participant—rather, to ensure that this supper had what it needed. To return to this table, because my grandma’s is empty. And to consider what family is beyond her living room, beyond my cousins and aunts and uncles, because community holds all of them. My community is part of my family.
As I met with the planning committee, learning their stories, their why, and the journey it took for them to keep at this, I was inspired to know our divide didn’t get there overnight either. It came because we neglected each other and our need for community to re-engage in a healthier way.
When the night approached, it was filled with anticipation. Over 120 people came, a collective of individuals who said “yes” to having supper with me, with each other. We came knowing each of us held vastly different views and opinions on life, on love, and on the way the world should function. But what was so powerful about this microcosm moment is that we came knowing ahead of time; we were unified in our commitment to enter this conversation with an open mind. To reserve judgement. To reset how we might typically approach the “other” and listen. Not to what we want, or to hear how their story might align with mine; rather, to be curious and understand how we missed this all along.
We suspended “self” and put the “other” before us, eating and sharing stories. Some cried. Others laughed. We questioned with honest compassion. We contemplated, like never before. Interrupting even for those mere hours our old grooves, building within that stubborn narrative a new experience that allowed us to interact with our greater selves. This is what truly made it so great.
Today, I realize these experiences do not represent the majority. And to assume that it should is a bit trite. But as I look at the political and social climate and the ways we currently deal with each other, what would happen if America started having dinner with each other every night, regardless of how tired, rich, or educated one claims to be? To come around a physical table versus a virtual one and hold a conversation with words and a different tone vs tweeting at everyone else in 140 characters and soundbites. Instead of writing dissertations behind emails, we would simply engage in another’s physical presence and listen. Listen to the why over the what and genuinely ask the how come, before we rhetorically ask, “Who do you think you are?”
But just having supper isn’t going to necessarily change anyone. How we have that supper, who we are when sharing that meal, is even more important than just coming together with great expectation. The pure ability to rediscover in each other what makes us all who we are is what makes us all so great.