by Evelyn Bence

“Strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody.” —Samuel Pepys

“We’ll enjoy the quilts, but there’s another purpose here. I want you to make a new friend.” Pause. “I’m serious.”   —Brenda

Since the 2015 Charleston Mother Emanuel Church massacre, members of my predominantly white Episcopal parish in Arlington, Virginia, and nearby Lomax African Methodist Episcopal Zion congregation have occasionally worshiped or attended events together. Other participants—our Maureen, their Brenda—have proven themselves to be the warp and woof of the partnership. Sidestepping the relational effort, I set myself along the fringe.

Then last summer, I joined twenty women from the two churches and ventured to thirty miles west, to a nationwide quilting show. I anticipated viewing the expansive Sacred Threads exhibit. But the prospect of the undertaking made me tired: the church-bus trip and a diner lunch.

I knew one exhibitor, Terry. Amazing—what she could create with a bag of remnants. She joined our lunch table for six—she and I white, alongside Brenda and compadres. Conversation clicked. I credited Brenda and particularly Terry—childhood travels with her CIA dad, her entrée into fabric storytelling. But Terry framed a wider scene. That evening she emailed: “Stimulating gathering. I felt like a collector of people and their stories. I had to work hard sometimes, both as a listener and speaker.” I resonated. Rewarding but “hard work.” She continued, “You do a lovely job with questions that turn into conversation around the table, not just ping-pong for two.” Maybe I wasn’t hanging along the selvage. She’d seen all six of us as stitched together, gathered in.

Months later, my church displayed Terry’s quilts. We invited Lomax members to an artist talk. I drafted a guest list for a celebratory supper, pondering a line by Dr. Chris Williamson (God So Loved the World, B&H Academic 2020): “We may experience racial integration in some of our churches on Sunday, but real reconciliation is experienced in our homes on Monday.” Had our “sister church” relationship extended across domestic thresholds? I didn’t think so. I emailed Brenda, “I’m inviting a few women for dinner. I trust you’ll be available to come.”

I admit, I was taken aback by Brenda’s response: “I am and I am sure others would love to come to your home for dinner. What a lovely gesture!!! I will pass the word … How many would you like for me to invite?” How many? I’d intended one: Representative Brenda, at a table set for five. Nudged by Brenda’s three exclamation points, I altered the list. “It’s a small dinner party. Think in terms of one or two others, beside yourself.”

Seven of us gathered at my table. Brenda and Guest Gloria. Quilter Terry. Maureen, Laurie, and me, from my congregation. And a neighborhood teen who invited herself, bartering pot roast for help serving up.

Without artificial prompts, conversation flowed. No secrets deeper than family recipes. No yardage ripped from the bolt. Just a patchwork of variegated experiences pieced together, if only for an evening. Travel. Traditions. Challenges. Disappointments. At least once, Brenda caught my eye and nodded approval—maybe of the pot roast, I’m not sure.

Before dessert, the teenager whispered “I’m bored.” Hold on, I motioned. She declined my rendition of Mom’s Pear Gingerbread but accepted ice cream. Bless her, her no thank you gave Gloria permission to say ditto.

After dessert, I excused myself, to drive the restless teen a few blocks home. Buckling her seatbelt, unbidden she pronounced, “It was a success. That’s my opinion.” She’d been more attentive than I’d realized. The guests hardly noticed my absence and lingered but not overlong. Thank you. Good-night—like tying off a thread at the end of a hem. Not as difficult as I had thought.

Evelyn Bence is author most recently of Room at My Table: Preparing Heart and Home for Christian Hospitality (Upper Room Books), 52 anecdotal meditations that gently, humorously invite readers to welcome mealtime guests. She is an ongoing contributor to Daily Guideposts, and her personal essays have appeared in publications including Washingtonian, Washington Post, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, and US Catholic.

Cover image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay