Talking to strangers is hard. Even when I meet another person who dresses like me, looks like me, talks like me—appears, in fact, almost indistinguishable from me—often I find myself at a loss for words. I open my mouth and out fall superficial questions like, “What do you do?” and, “Where are you from?”. Occasionally we share in common a city or acquaintance or hobby, but usually I walk away from these encounters as alone as I walked into them. Sometimes I wonder how people ever get to know each other at all.
Last month, The Nashville Food Project began partnering with Trinity United Methodist Church to host weekly “community dinners” in the church’s fellowship hall. I have gone to all of these meals so far (although I must admit I have only gone to eat and haven’t prepared food or served or really even helped clean up at any of them). Every week I sit at a different table with a different group of people: people who live in the area around Trinity, members of the church, TNFP staff members and volunteers. We all gather around tables of six or eight, pass one another platters of homemade entrees, sides, and desserts, and eat together. We also talk. While I have no trouble polishing off everything on my plate each week, I have not mastered the art of connecting with every person at my table, learning their stories and telling them mine. But I keep going back—not only because of the free, delicious food, but because I am learning how to make friends out of strangers.
I learn from the Trinity member who drives with his wife from Goodlettsville every Sunday to go to this church, the church where he was baptized as a baby and where he belongs as an adult. I learn from the woman who, as she wraps up napkinfuls of leftover brownies to take home, says she wants to be remembered for having a big heart. I learn from the young man who tells me every week he’s so happy to see me; even though he can’t quite remember my name, I know he means it. I learn from the child who says grace before we eat, forgets her words in the middle, and ends with a rather abrupt, “Thank you, God, for…Amen.”
Yes, thank you. Thank you for meals that nourish us body and soul. Thank you for friends and for strangers, and for those flashes of connection we cannot plan or predict. Thank you even for those awkward moments when we can do nothing but look at our watches and wonder what, exactly, we are doing here. And thank you for giving us just enough of an answer to call us back to each other each week, each day, each moment.
“Thank you, God, for…”. Amen indeed.