When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
By Emily Scott
You are invited to Dinner Church, our posters read, this and every Sunday. Dinner Church at St. Lydia’s. So you make your way to the corner of Avenue B and 9th Street in the East Village on a Sunday evening. It’s winter now, so you bundle up against the wind as you emerge from the bus or the subway and hurry to our door. Someone welcomes you, helps you put your coat away and gives you a nametag. And then says, “Would you like to help cook dinner in the kitchen, or help set tables upstairs?” And puts you to work.
St. Lydia’s is the just-over-a-year-old church start that I founded together with a whole bunch of friends and congregants, including my collaborator and now-colleague Rachel Pollak. If you asked us if we’re doing something experimental, I suppose we’d say yes, but we’d also say that we’re doing something incredibly traditional. Our liturgy is modeled after the Eucharist of the Early Church when Christians would gather for worship that took place around a full meal, blessed with the great-great-grandparent of our modern Eucharistic Prayer. When Paul writes to the Corinthians, hassling them to wait for each other and eat together at the Lord’s supper, he’s talking about an ancient potluck with its liturgical roots in the Sabbath Supper and Seder Meal. And this is what we do at St. Lydia’s, not because we’re liturgical purists, but because we find this ancient practice resonates sonorously in our context.
But where were we? Oh yes, you were working. Perhaps you’ve elected the kitchen, and find yourself industriously peeling a squash as directly by one of our lead cooks. We’ve found that working together helps build community, as we make worship together. Rather than seeing work as a burden to be shouldered by the unlucky or unwitting, we see work as an opportunity to participate in creating something amazing.
Around 7:00, someone hands you a casserole dish to be taken to the sanctuary, where the dinner table has been set by congregants and newcomers alike with a bright tablecloth and napkins. Someone uncorks the wine and sets out the bread. Then everyone gathers in the entryway for a prayer, a welcome, and the candle lighting. You participate in singing a simple, repeated song as we process to the sanctuary and light the candles on the table. You hum with the group as the presider (it’s Pastor Phil tonight, the pastor at our host church, Trinity Lower East Side) prays over the meal, tears off a big piece of bread and says to his neighbor, “This is my body.” A moment of silence, and everyone digs into the meal, passing wine and juice and serving dishes round the table. There’s a lively commotion as conversation sparks.
Between our core group, folks who wander in and out, and visitors, attendance at St. Lydia’s can fall anywhere between six and eighteen folks on a given Sunday night. This means that the character of our worship can change drastically from week to week. Some Sundays we’re a reflective, intimate group. Other Sundays we’re a boisterous crew singing in four part harmony. It sort of depends on who shows up. And who shows up is a source of surprise and delight. Often we’ll be joined by folks who make their home in the park across the street, or kids who were riding by on bikes, or 15 college students staying in the church on a mission trip. All are welcome at the table.
At the moment, Lydia’s has a core group of about 15 congregants. Our first gathering was at a congregant’s home in Advent, 2008. The group has shifted and changed since then, gaining members one by one. For the most part, the core group is between 25 and 35 years old. We’re tend to be fairly educated and creative: an artist, a few writers, some graduate students, a copyeditor. We have a varying degree of familiarity with church. Most of the visitors who show up at our doors have one thing in common: they are spiritually hungry. They have this sense of God at work in their lives, and they’re trying to figure out how to respond.
But back to worship.
Dinner is followed by the exploration of scripture. I preach a compact sermon and ask the group to respond from their experience. You might surprise yourself by offering a story of your own. Then the group takes hands, sings a song, and prays. After a poem is read, everyone lifts their cups as the presider blesses them, then clean up begins and you dry plates and glasses in the kitchen. The moment the dishes are done, folks crowd into the entry once again for announcements, an offering, a final song and a blessing, and after sharing the peace with your neighbors, you head back out into the night. There’s food in your belly, and perhaps even a song from the evening cycling around in your head. And a postcard in your hand. And some leftovers in the other.
We do church this way because people are hungry. People in New York have hungry bellies that may be filled with home cooked food. They have hungry souls that may be filled with holy text, holy conversation. And these hungers are sated when we sit down together to eat.
We do church this way because people want challenge. People want the challenge of sitting down next to someone, someone they don’t know, who may be entirely different from them in every way, and working, reaching, to see her as God sees her: perfectly and wonderfully made. And we are challenged when we sit down together to eat.
We do church this way because people are looking for Jesus. People are looking for Jesus and thinking that just maybe they see him, but then again maybe not. But when we sit down together and break bread, we glimpse him for a moment in one another’s eyes and say to each other, I see Christ at this table; I see him when we sit down together to eat.
Emily Scott is the founder and Pastoral Minister at St. Lydia’s , a new church start in Manhattan. She holds an M Div from Yale Divinity School and blogs at sitandeat.typepad.com. She invites you explore the St. Lydia’s website.