By Young Lee Hertig
Last year when visiting Korea, I read a newspaper article on the plane about a growing open table fellowship phenomenon at some restaurants in Seoul. Urbanization having displaced a large population from their families, many live as migrants to big cities which robs them of table fellowship with their families. Rapidly more people in Seoul have become strangers and lone diners.
In this milieu, some restaurants began experimenting with an open table concept that aggregates lone eaters to share a common table. The open table transforms strangers into companies of fellows among those who live alone and eat alone. Strangers sitting alone at certain restaurants share the same table and bond. Just as Jesus enjoyed table fellowship, once the lone table is shared among others, people find themselves in good company. It is turning out to be a successful business-savvy entrepreneurship.
Having grown up in the foodie culture of Korea, I have fond memories of rich table fellowship among family, relatives and friends, which was occasionally extended to strangers. Since I became an empty-nester five years ago, I often end up eating alone and feel rather out of sync. What I miss the most from the immigrant church ministry in the 80s and 90s is, indeed, rich table fellowship at the church and church members’ houses.
The kind of foods churches serve also seem to mark the generational differences. The immigrant church’s lunch fellowship involves an actual meal — not just coffee and donuts typical of many English ministries. Despite the church women’s laborious work in the kitchen and the amount of water use and enormous trash generated on Sundays, human bonding at table fellowship for Asian Americans feels primordial and thus essential. Dating back to the ancient near east culture, diverse table fellowship was the venue by which Jesus practiced his ministry. In fact, a German theologian attributed Jesus’ death on the cross to his deviation from Jewish table codes.
In light of this, I have been wondering whether today’s increasing number of the SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious), Nones (aka non-religious people), and Dones (aka the de-churched), may be attracted to a church of simple table fellowship around food and conversation. Perhaps these are the felt needs that contribute to the house churches popping up everywhere today.
Increasingly, I have become less tolerant of the same old monologue in worship services and having to sit on hard wooden pews. I prefer sitting on couches and engaging in a deeper level of dialogue across EGG (Ethnicity, Generation, Gender). To my joy, an old friend who is slowly rejoining the world after five years of grief over the loss of his beloved wife hosted a lunar calendar new year party at his home this February. Guess how many delicious Vietnamese dishes he cooked? More than 8 courses! It was a great reunion among old friends who have been waiting for him to break out of his isolation. We all had a blast while eating the delicious dishes he prepared all day long! The conversation around food was a joy and a delight.
To further my joy, I received a warm email invite from him the other day. He began the online invitation by saying, “I eat alone at home and rarely go out.” He planned a monthly dinner party sign-up with an elaborate electronic calendar and photos of each month’s menu! Yes, this friend is starting an open table fellowship at his home. His homemade foods are out of this world. He is slowly entering back into our lives and indeed, the table fellowship accompanies healing and alleviates depression. I signed up for his first open table fellowship and will be signing up again. At the table, we encounter Jesus who practiced diverse table fellowship during his ministry — even saying of himself, “I am the bread of life.” At the open table, I feel Jesus sitting with us and breaking bread with us.
Rev. Dr. Young Lee Hertig is executive director and a founding member of ISAAC (Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity) and AAWOL (Asian American Women On Leadership). She teaches in the Global Studies and Sociology Department at Azusa Pacific University and is an ordained Presbyterian clergy as well as a commissioner of the Presbyterian Church USA to the National Council of Churches Faith and Order.