Red-Eyed Gravy: “A Charleston Feast for Reconciliation”

Christmas is a time of nostalgia and hope, which, for me, at least, can turn […]

Josh Retterer / 12.20.16

Christmas is a time of nostalgia and hope, which, for me, at least, can turn a bit maudlin. I listen to podcasts at work, and sometimes, during certain seasons, my podcast tastes can lead me down ill-advised paths. At work, poignant is the most dangerous podcast category. The excuse of allergies is a good cover for tears when you work in a blue collar environment like I do.

I spent the best part of a half hour with tears dripping out of my safety glasses while listening to an episode of the podcast, Gravy. A collection of half-hour audio documentaries and oral histories produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance, Gravy has become one of my favorite podcasts (the Mockingcast being numero uno, of course!). It was the recent conviction of Dylann Roof that caused me to flash back to a story Gravy did last year, titled, “A Charleston Feast for Reconciliation.”

The feast was a recreation of an event put on 150 years ago by Nat Fuller, right after the Civil War. A freed slave turned entrepreneur and caterer, Fuller hosted an event that brought whites and blacks together in a way that hadn’t happened before–on equal terms around a table, breaking bread, for the purpose of reconciliation, The dinner party included speeches, toasts to Lincoln, and an impressive menu that took Fuller great pains to obtain during a time of severe food shortages and strict rationing.

Fast forward to 2015, and the Nat Fuller feast was recreated for similar purposes: to combat racial strife in a troubled Charleston. One of the attenders of this dinner party was State Senator and pastor, Clementa Pinckney. That name should sound familiar. He was killed just a few weeks later, while leading a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, along with eight others.

The surreptitious work-shed tears were for the body of Christ, the Church. Part of me, of us, was attacked that day. When a member of the body is hurt, we all feel the pain; it’s one body in Christ. The tears were also for the fact that Rev. Pinckney was participating in an act of racial reconciliation mere weeks before he was killed in an act of racial terrorism. The idea, the sacred trust behind hospitality is peace. We don’t harm those we share a meal with. For that peace to be shattered so violently, so quickly after is disheartening. Apparently my low anthropology isn’t low enough after all.

Merry Christmas! I warned you I can get maudlin during the holidays.

Flannery O’Connor writes in a letter, found in The Habit of Being, to Cecil Dawkins,

Human nature is so faulty that it can resist any amount of grace and most of the time it does.

That resistance is what makes events like the Nat Fuller dinner so amazing and rare. Most of the time, we resist extended grace. To sit down with people who we have harmed or have been harmed by involves a vulnerability that is frightening. In order to receive grace, we are acknowledging the guilt that created the need for it. In order to extend grace, we identify with the times when we’ve needed to receive it ourselves. In both cases, 1 John 4:19 applies, “We love because He first loved us.”

Our hope is both nostalgic and future oriented. It’s not circumstantial, it exists in what Christ already has accomplished.

Robert Farrar Capon writes in More Theology & Less Heavy Cream, the newly published book of his essays by Mockingbird, on this orientation of our hope.

[Pietro] thought of the early Christians and their hope for the second coming of Christ. People wondered why, when Jesus failed to show up, they didn’t get depressed. The answer was that they never thought of his return as a future event; rather, it was a present fact in their lives… They kept right on partying–enjoying their present–because they didn’t make the mistake of trying to figure out which minute he meant. Instead they said, “He’s coming back! Isn’t that terrific?”

The dinner, 150 years ago and today was done in hope, and in imitation of that feast we are looking forward to, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb. There Rev. Pinckney and I will share a meal with the source of our reconciliation,the Lamb of God. Unlike the meals we have now, no death will follow, as that enemy, at last, has been defeated.

Revelation 19:9: “And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.'”

Nothing maudlin about that!