Dining in the Kingdom
Members of a culturally diverse Arkansas mission community
are breaking bread together to break down barriers
By Dale Hanson
In 2010, when members of Glenmary's Waldron, Ark., mission were looking for some way to bring their culturally diverse community together, they decided on a method that Jesus used often: sharing meals and conversation.
Kathy O'Brien, the mission's administrator, says St. Jude mission was facing an ongoing challenge familiar to missions with English- and Spanish-speaking members who attend separate Masses—how to overcome the barriers of language and culture.
Looking back on their bilingual meal experiences since then, Kathy says, "I'm so happy our ‘Dining in the Kingdom' dinners worked as well as they did. They were a joyful experience. They reminded us that in God's kingdom, everyone eats at the same table."
Glenmary Father Neil Pezzulo arrived to pastor the Waldron and Danville missions in 2003, with Kathy joining him in 2004 as a pastoral associate in Waldron. When Father Neil first arrived, Spanish-speaking Catholics in the area didn't feel welcome at the mission. Seven years later, Kathy says everyone felt welcome, but language and culture divisions remained.
So when a 2010 diocesan parish survey again brought this issue to light, the Waldron parish council discussed possible solutions. "Why don't we have dinners together?" said parishioner Bridget Duffield, who emigrated from England years ago and empathizes with recent immigrants in the mission.
When Kathy heard this suggestion, "I realized it was a great idea, and I told Father Neil and the council I'd work to help make sure it happened."
There is a theology to this idea, she says. "Scripture tells us that Jesus did a lot of ‘table ministry' with many different people. When individuals eat together and talk, something good happens: it helps build trust and relationships between them."
Kathy and her organizing committee—which included English- and Spanish-speaking parishioners—proposed that St. Jude sponsor a series of meals called "Dining in the Kingdom." The name was taken from Luke 14:15: "Blessed is the one who will dine in the kingdom of God."
But before these dinners became a reality, she and the committee had a planning meal to brainstorm ideas, create guest lists and come up with "ice-breaker" questions that would serve as conversation guides.
Kathy's house was chosen as the site because it was convenient, neutral territory—and because she's trusted by all members of the community. Kathy, who is fluent in Spanish, also served in the critical role of translator at most dinners to help break through the language barrier.
Twenty sit-down meals were held from September through December 2010 and from February through April 2011. The dinners were scheduled on Sunday afternoons between the English and Spanish Masses.
The number of participants ranged from five to 11—with the typical dinner group consisting of one or two English-speaking families representing different ethnic groups (e.g., Anglos, Filipinos, Native Americans, Vietnamese, first-generation English and Irish); a Spanish-speaking family (bilingual children); and sometimes one or two committee members.
Each meal was simple—store-bought lasagna, garlic bread, salad and homemade cake. And participants brought a favorite food of their culture to share with members of their dining group.
After beginning each dinner with a prayer, Kathy or other participants read Luke 14:12-15 aloud in both English and Spanish. The verses are a prelude to the Parable of the Great Feast.
Kathy then asked the guests questions to encourage sharing. She asked about their birthplaces and families; the journeys that brought them to Waldron and the mission; their Church experiences; and how they'd like the Church to help them in their lives and faith.
"The questions led to good conversations about many things," says Kathy. "The participants told their stories and learned about each other." The immigrants often talked about their journeys to the United States and their new home, as well as the hardships that caused them to come.
"Some stories opened people's eyes," says Kathy. "The dinners led guests to look at each other as equals and as real people who were trying to make better lives for their families."
After the dinners, a number of people expressed a desire to learn more of the other language and more about the cultures of the other mission members. They also said they knew these kinds of efforts could help bring the mission community together.
"I left the table some nights experiencing the joy that we will hopefully have in heaven," says Kathy, "because all the people there were equals, sharing and laughing together. For a time, each dinner group formed a small community. And when dinner was over, people were ready to stay around longer."
The program ended on Palm Sunday 2011. "We received almost all positive feedback," she says. "Many people said they learned a lot from the experience and from other mission members. Also, many said they'd welcome more dinners and that parishioners have more to share with each other." Several people even volunteered to host future dinners.
Because overcoming the barriers to parish unity takes an ongoing effort, Kathy says, "We're already planning to 'dine in the kingdom' again this fall—possibly in our parish hall or parishioners' homes. Imitating Jesus' example of table ministry has been a really good idea that we want to keep going."
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2011 Glenmary Challenge.