Soup and Solidarity at the Lord’s Supper
by Landon Eckhardt | photographs by Margaret McGhee
When my wife and I heard about a church in New York City that was taking a distinctly creative approach to corporate worship, we were eager to experience it for ourselves. So on a Sunday evening in June we hopped on the A train from our Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan and headed down to St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn’s Park Slope.
St. Lydia’s Dinner Church is the result of two friends’ growing dissatisfaction with the traditional church’s inability to reach people, primarily those on the margins of society who don’t easily find acceptance in mainstream ecclesial circles. After living in New York City for several years and hanging out with people from all walks of life, Pastor Emily Scott quickly realized there had to be a better way to do church in a postmodern and post-Christian city like New York. Believing that Jesus accepts and embraces the poor and hungry, sexual minorities, and those who have been excluded from the church, Scott decided that St. Lydia’s needed to open its doors to all.
“Sharing a meal together is a practice that has its roots in the earliest days of the church. We read of Jesus breaking bread with his friends and saying, ‘This is my body.’ For the first few centuries of the church, Christians gathered on Sunday to share a full meal.”
With the help of her friend Rachel Pollak and several others, Scott set out to change the way church was being done, or rather to go back to the roots of how church used to be done—working together to prepare a meal, eating the meal together, and sharing how Christ is present in each person’s own story. Each of these three pillars of the church, as St. Lydia’s refers to them, is rooted in the context of community and helps “create space for moments of transcendence through ritual,” as Scott explains.
“Sharing a meal together is a practice that has its roots in the earliest days of the church,” she continues. “We read of Jesus breaking bread with his friends and saying, ‘This is my body.’ For the first few centuries of the church, Christians gathered on Sunday to share a full meal.” Through the centuries, this meal began to fade into the background, becoming less and less prominent. Eventually, the meal contracted into a single part of the service, called Communion, rather than constituting the entire context of the service. Every Sunday and Monday evening at 7 p.m., in the Brooklyn Zen Center of all places, St. Lydia’s redeems this lost tradition of church.
When we arrived for our first service, we were shown to an upper room, an aesthetically pleasing space with bright contemporary artwork hung on white walls, round area rugs on light hardwood floors, and stainless steel kitchen appliances that reflected the many candle flames flickering throughout the room. A friendly congregant greeted us and provided instructions for the evening. We left our shoes on a shelf, put on name tags, and got to work.
Each congregant had a specific task for setting up. My wife and I were given the responsibility of setting the tables with place mats, napkins, silverware, plates, cups, and drinks. Although quite a few others were also visiting for the first time, each worked efficiently at his or her particular task. Soon the spicy scent of Middle-Eastern soup rose from the large pot simmering on the stove, tended by this week’s chef, a congregant from Iran. Each week a different congregant takes a turn cooking for the evening while others offer sous-chef support.
Around 7 p.m. a chime signaled us to gather around a small basin of water, where we were each given a candle. The service began with the meditative drone of a Shruti box and a song leader singing an ancient hymn. During the song, Scott dipped her hand into the water basin and sprinkled water on us. She then lit her candle and, lighting the candle of the person next to her, instructed each of us to do the same. Soon light emanated from each of our hands. We were asked to join the singing as we walked in procession to the tables, around which we formed a large circle.
Scott broke the bread and passed it around the circle. We prayed and then sat down to eat and fellowship with one another. The food was good, but it was the diverse gathering of people and our conversations that made the meal so enjoyable. Two people told me they relied on this meal to make it through the week. One person told me he had dabbled in occultism and sought a faith family in Buddhism before being accepted by this Christian community that truly cared for him. Others were able to be open about their sexual identity without having anyone look down on them. This was no ordinary meal on a Sunday evening but a communally divine experience!
Many had finished their meal and some had gone back for seconds when Emily Scott rose from the table to give what St. Lydia calls an “exploration of Scripture.” After reading a Scripture passage, she invited several of the congregants to join her in dramatizing the text. After this, she opened the floor for dialogue regarding the passage: What does the passage mean to you? What struggles or theological concerns do you have with it? It seemed the whole congregation got involved at this point, and the text came to life in a way that just a reading could never have afforded. The service ended with the passing of the common wine cup, completing our Communion table.
After some discussion, we received our clean-up assignments and began the process of washing, drying, and putting dishes back in the cabinets, packaging up the leftover food for anyone in the congregation to take home, and rearranging the room for the Zen Center’s activities in the morning. Upon completing our tasks we gathered around the room in a large circle again to sing, pray, and dance before the evening drew to a close.
My wife and I thanked everyone for their graciousness, said our goodbyes, and processed the experience as we walked to the train. What was it that made the experience of worship so uniquely fulfilling? Why don’t more people do church this way? As we pondered these questions we remembered what Pastor Scott had shared with us earlier that evening: “We do church this way because people are hungry. People in New York have hungry bellies that may be filled with home-cooked food. They have hungry souls that may be filled with holy text, holy conversation. And these hungers are sated when we sit down together to eat.”
Landon Eckhardt lives and works in New York City. As donor relations coordinator for The Bowery Mission, he seeks to bring renewal and hope to those on the margins of society, particularly the poor and oppressed. He is also pursuing a dual degree (MDiv/MBA in economic development) from Palmer Theological Seminary/Eastern University.
If you are interested in visiting St. Lydia’s, please go to StLydias.org to learn more. While this article was being prepared, St. Lydia’s began leasing a building of their own in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn and surpassed its crowd-funding campaign goal for renovations. They are now holding Dinner Church there in the evenings and in the daytime hours are sharing the building with the community as a co-working space—“a place where anyone who would normally work from home comes to work together instead … There is coffee and tea, wifi, and a spiritually focused collaborative community of people to work alongside.”