Eating at the Same Table

The simple joys of living communally

Photo Credit: Simon Turner
The dinner table is unique; a sacred space where everyone receives the same meal, and everyone receives the same welcome…

Sometimes, the best lessons are the ones that you learn over and over again. Those nuggets of gold that bury their way into the back of your mind, before something happens which causes them to resurface again…

Often, it’s an experience that brings that nugget back to life.

Last week, I had the utter joy of going on short trip to Essex, just outside London. There, I connected with a bunch of people who are doing community well. In a very small place called Stanford-le-hope, this community are serving, learning, praying and eating together.

This togetherness is what you first encounter; the idea that nobody is alone in what they do. And this is enacted, most obviously, in eating at the same table. Communal meals are at the heart of what they do.

This act isn’t new — for many of us, it’s second nature. I grew up in a home where eating at the table was mandatory, not optional. Around evening meals we shared our days; what had happened that day; in between mouthfuls of spaghetti bolognese or mashed potato.

So in Stanford, meals are at the heart — just like a regular family meal. Except this family meets three times a week in three groups because there are over 50 of them altogether. Each week, house meals are a core focus of their time together — and I was able to join in with two of them.

Something significant happens when you sit with a group of people and share food, together. You can arrive as strangers, but leave united over one shared experience. Eating the same meal, everyone is equal. The dinner table is unique; a sacred space where everyone receives the same meal, and everyone receives the same welcome. Nobody is treated differently; race, gender, class barriers broken down. Everyone’s contribution is equal at the shared table.

In Stanford, these shared meals aren’t just for certain people — they’re for anyone who happens to be stopping by. They’re for the people who have nowhere else to go; those who are in need of some love and affection; or those, like me, who need to rediscover the joy of eating together.

“Something significant happens when you sit with a group of people and share food, together…”

I ate some delicious food during my stay. But the social and spiritual elements of the meal made so much more of an impact than the meals themselves. I remember the people I encountered, the facts I learnt about their lives, the way we gathered, the conversations we had. We ate together before serving in that small community; we ate together as a break from work; we ate together to celebrate a birthday; we ate together to break bread and share as Christians the unity we have.

Eating at the same table is one of my favourite things to do because of all of this significance. And this is a lesson I need to keep re-learning. This beautiful expression of community in a little pocket of Essex reminded me of the joy of eating together — but with some practical, significant additions.

Over a substantial lunch one day, a group of us gathered together to prepare to run an after-school cafe. The food was sustenance, yet the time together was essential preparation as we embarked upon the task. It was a beautiful reminder that we need to eat with the people we spend the most time with. Whether that’s our family, work colleagues, fellow students or flatmates. Eating together creates opportunities for conversation that wouldn’t happen elsewhere.

Another day, I arrived to my first house meal and despite knowing nobody, I was immediately able to serve. This unique quality is second nature to the members of this community, so to dish up food, refill water jugs and dry up plates was a welcome reminder that when we share food together, we also share the logistical and practical parts. In community, everyone plays their part. And in serving, we become more integrated together; more tied together; more concerned for another’s needs.

Above everything practical, this trip offered a beautiful and timely reminder that gathering to eat together is one of the best ways to share life with others. There is honesty, openness and joy at the shared table; a sacred space; a significant place.

It was also a reminder to open the table wider — to the people who might not feel as comfortable — to make sure that everyone is welcome. In Stanford-Le-Hope, they’ve mastered the art of eating together — one of the fundamental stepping stones to mastering community. You should visit sometime.

Read more about this community in Stanford in this beautifully written extended piece by Simon Turner (and discover more of his excellent photography too).