The Not So Welcome Table

 “When [Jesus] 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…”
Luke 24:30-31

I’m gonna sit at the welcome table

I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days

I’m gonna sit at the welcome table

Gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days.

The spiritual, “Sit at the Welcome Table,” was a double entendre. When slaves, who were unwelcome at their masters’ tables, sang about the “welcome table,” they were singing about someday sitting down together at the table with and being welcomed by those who had once been their oppressors, as well as singing about a time when they would sit at the table at the marriage feast of the Lamb spoken of in the New Testament book of Revelation. African-Americans bound in slavery were never welcome to their master’s table, and this song echoed their hope of the tables turning in future glory. But whatever the case, they sang of someday being a welcomed guest at a table where everybody is accepted without prejudgments.

Breaking bread goes back many centuries and crosses many cultures and religions. It is an act of coming together for food and friendship. It is the act by which Jesus instructed us to remember Him. In the Book of Acts, members of the early church “broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” They shared meals together and grew in their faith and in their fellowship. But breaking bread was never simply about eating. It was about welcoming, accepting, receiving, acknowledging one another’s humanity and acknowledging the commonality of those sharing the meal. Likewise, the refusal to share a meal with; i.e., break bread with or even eat in the same room with, denies humanity and commonality.

In his address to Council after the 1935 lynching in Colorado County, Bishop Quin spoke of the need of the Church to preach a message that would “build up a Christian atmosphere or attitude of mind.” Knowing that some of the members of the Church had stood among the many who watched and jeered during the public lynching of two teen aged African American males, Bishop Quin seemed to express the need for the Church to not only pay lip service to the Gospel but to live into the Gospel preached by the Church and to  be a true demonstration of it, even in the face of systems that allowed for discriminations against, mistreatment of and violent acts against Black people. Then, more than a decade later in 1947 when Council met in Beaumont, Bishop Quin found himself again  addressing a problem related to segregation that was affecting the Church. “No amount of study,” he declared, “will bring about equality of opportunity but that all must accept as Christians what the Prayer Book says: ‘O God, who has made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the earth.’”

When Diocesan Council met in Beaumont in 1947, as dictated by the law and by the hearts of far too may, they did not break bread together. The Jim Crow laws of the time would not allow Black clergy and Black delegates to be housed in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as the White delegates and clergy. Because of local ordinances preventing church members of different races from eating together in the same banquet hall, Bishop Quin, diocesan bishop, and Bishop Hines, his Co-Adjutor had to split their time between two racially separate gatherings for the Pre-Council Banquet. Both Bishop Quin and Bishop Hines, in their annual addresses, referred to the threats to the Church and the nation by segregation.

In his address, Bishop Hines called on the church to end its quiet acquiescence in the culture of segregation. He argued that unjust segregation laws were giving subversive elements all the ammunition they needed to attack and undermine American society. “The future of American freedom was at stake,” he declared, “and unless Christians in the United States supported the standards of the New Testament with respect to race, they would forfeit the position of world leadership they had recently attained.” “Stop this ludicrous and unfair practice,” Bishop Hines demanded, “and either schedule one common meal or have no banquet at all. If such a policy is to be adopted,”  he said, “I honestly believe that it will give flavor and power and reality to another common meal, the Supper of the Lord, such as it has not had with us before. “

In support of his position, Bishop Quin invited two African American delegates, members of St. Luke’s, Houston, to address a joint session of the Council and Women’s Auxiliary. The delegates, Charles A. Shaw and Carter Wesley (lawyer and activist, and newspaper publisher, contended that the Church had violated Christian principles in voluntarily accepting the policies of the hotel, and that they did not seek social equality but only the full application of Christian principles. Their arguments, as well as the two Bishops’ appeared to fall on deaf ears.

Meanwhile, Beaumont delegates argued to the contrary, one saying, “What is it going to do to the Negro to sup with [us] at our banquet [if we] turn him away from our homes?” Another objected saying, “I have no objection to sitting with the Negro in church, or going to the altar with him, but I do object to eating with him.” In the end, Bishop Hines failed to convince delegates, and the next day a resolution was passed commending the host parish of St. Mark’s, Beaumont for abiding by the law regarding segregated dining facilities.

Although the 1947 diocesan convention rejected Bishop Hines’ suggestion, he was successful in preventing the scheduling of diocesan banquets over the next few years. By 1952 his persuasiveness won, Black and White Episcopalians ate together for the first time at the Annual Convention. The actions of Bishop Quin and Hines led the way for other southern dioceses to follow their example.

All was not lost at the 1947 Council, however, and in response to the issues raised, a Bi-Racial Commission was established to study ways for White and Negro communicants to work together more effectively going forward. It won approval by a vote of 77 to 68, following an extended and spirited discussion which began with Bishop Hines’ address on Sunday evening and continued on the convention floor for the next two days.

Whether we kneel at the rail, sit around the dinner table with family, or banquet together in assembly halls, breaking bread with one another brings us into community where the sharing of our stories, our common life experiences can help us know better and grow better into the people God has called us to be. The table where we break bread together is a place of discovery, a place of coming to know one another, a place where our eyes and our hearts can indeed be opened wider to the knowledge and the goodness of God and one another…when we invite them and allow them to join and partake with us at the welcome table.

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