By Heidi Pitts, Director of Communications, Episcopal Diocese of Oregon
In researching for her latest book, Gratitude, author Diana Butler Bass spent significant time studying the Roman Empire. Knowledge of this ancient culture is critical to understanding the context Jesus lived in and the truly radical and revolutionary nature of his ministry. Diana suggests that, were we to turn the Roman society into an image, it would be a pyramid, with the majority of people struggling to survive, a smaller “middle class” striving ambitiously but futilely to rise in status, and a few people at the top holding most of the power and wealth.
In this trickle-down society of patronage and reputation, relationships circle around the question, “What can you do for me?” Then comes Jesus, telling people to sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor, to invite lepers and beggars to their banquets, to consider the meek and persecuted as blessed. He doesn’t just turn society upside down, he blows the hierarchical pyramid apart and replaces it with a table at which everyone sits face-to-face at eye level with each other.
The United States in 2018 is no less stratified than the Roman Empire was 2,000 years ago. Even as society becomes more diverse, the majority of people spend most of their time surrounded by others who look, think, and live in the same way they do. Social media and the 24-hour news cycle provide digitally segregated communities where ideas are reinforced rather than re-examined and discourse remains reactionary rather than reflective. People are talking and posting and live-streaming more than ever, but it seems fewer and fewer are really listening.
Recognizing the decreasing tendency for engaged conversation about politics and religion, the Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations created a civil discourse curriculum. Alan Yarborough, Office of Government Relations Communications Coordinator and Office Manager, explains, “The Civil Discourse Curriculum was created as a resource to help folks understand and practice civil discourse, particularly as it relates to discussion about politics, policy and legislation, and why it is so important to living out our Gospel call and solving the problems facing our communities, country and the world.”1
The Rev. Shana McCauley, vicar of St. Edward’s, Silverton wants to help people have these deep conversations in her own small community. As a bedroom community of Salem and Portland, people struggle to meet their neighbors, particularly across racial and political divides. In March 2017 Shana heard about Make America Dinner Again (MADA), which started in the Bay Area as a dinner series to bring together strangers whose views range the political spectrum. MADA’s vision is clear: “In an attempt to build understanding and move forward together, we’d like to invite people to sit down and have dinner. There are many avenues to protest, to donate, to fight, to be heard; Make America Dinner Again is an avenue to listen.”2
When Shana presented the idea to bring a MADA program to St. Edward’s, Anita Beck, the senior warden, said it immediately made sense. “This is who we are as Episcopalians, seeking the via media,” Anita stated. This tight-knit congregation operates communally, and everyone quickly grew excited to support this project. Additionally, Shana applied for and was awarded an Episcopal Church Evangelism Grant in recognition of the project’s plan to spread the Gospel “by creating safe and enjoyable space for people to find commonality in divided times.”3
While St. Edward’s plans to hold their first MADA meal in June, they recently became embroiled in a heated town hall discussion regarding their hope to host small living pods for homeless women in their parking lot. Shana says, “Unlike on social media, where we can shoot off a comment and then withdraw, we can’t walk away from these difficult conversations when we are face-to-face with each other. We need to be able to have these bigger conversations to work through the awkward moments in appropriate ways.”
In our Episcopal tradition, gathering around the table of God for Holy Eucharist holds the focal point of our ministry, a place where we relive the unifying call of Jesus to set aside whatever vestiges of power we hold and kneel side-by-side with every one of our neighbors. With their MADA project, the people of St. Edward’s hope to create that same welcoming, generous spirit with friends and strangers at the dinner table.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of In Conversation, the semi-annual magazine from the Diocese of Oregon. Click here to read more stories from In Conversation online.