Supper club, Keith Wilson and the twigs of graceby Tobin Miller Shearer
In a church pummeled by recession, unsettled by transition and immersed in controversy, grace can get lost. During my year's separation from family, friends and congregation, the Spirit strove to remind me that grace, like a twig floating on a river, will pass by unnoticed if I do not pay attention. If not for the bracing challenge of a talented hairdresser, I would have missed an opportunity to let grace unfurl around me. Unexpected, unassuming and uncommon, the grace given me in the past year may speak to a church so determined to be missional that we often fail to notice the unexpected inbreaking of the Spirit.
Tobin Miller Shearer (left) and Keith Wilson. Photo provided.
In the summer of 2008, my wife of nearly 22 years left me in Missoula, Mont., the town where I would be living for the next 10 months. While I started a new job at the University of Montana, Cheryl returned to Evanston, Ill., so that our sons could finish their high school senior year. Uncharacteristically I did not weep as she and the boys puttered off in our Volkswagen diesel. The distance seemed too long, the yawning wait too wide for emotion to break through. I hopped on my bike—dubbed a nerdcycle by my ever affectionate offspring—and went to the office to read.
A few weeks before, our congregation, the ever bold and beautiful Community Mennonite of Markham, Ill., had bidden me goodbye. For seven years the spirit of those who worship across lines of race and class in a struggling suburb of Chicago had buoyed, bathed and breathed upon us. At Community, we knew we were always loved. Without question. With abundance. Despite a 45-minute Sunday morning drive and increasingly late Saturday night curfews, our sons never complained about the commute. They, too, knew they were loved at Community. Where I did not weep in Missoula when my family drove away, I did cry in church as the wise women of our congregation reminded me that they had prayed me into my new job and God would be with me in Montana, even as he had been in Markham. I left church grieving, feeling empty and worrying about transition. I had no hope that grace would intervene.
The year moved slowly. I learned to cook for one, busy myself with research and breath the crisp air of fall in the Rockies. Living in a basement apartment decorated in early 1970s chic—dark wood paneling, red shag carpet, parquet flooring—didn't help. I rode the nerdcycle to and from campus, counting days until I could fly home for Christmas break. Despite working with students I loved and being welcomed by colleagues who made sure I didn't always eat alone, I grew ever more lonely as the year progressed. I saw no grace around me.
Keith Wilson, however, soon shook me awake. To understand how Keith came to jostle me from quiescence, I need first introduce him. Keith is a member of Community Mennonite, a businessman, a fashion designer, a hair dresser and one of the most faithful people I know. For the last four years at Community, Keith and I had led a young adult Sunday school class. Somewhere in the midst of our Sunday morning conversations, we decided it would be fun to prepare Scripture skits in the freshly irreverent style of dramatists Lee Eshelman and Ted Swartz before Lee’s untimely death. As we used goofy voices, crazy characters and unexpected circumstances to enliven Scripture, we grew to trust each other.
Before I left for Montana, Keith and a half dozen other members of our congregation traveled to Evanston in the middle of the week to attend my dissertation defense. Keith was not the only one who dressed up for the event, but he was the only one who designed his own T-shirt. It read, "I defend Tobin Miller Shearer" (see photo). I was again moved.
On one of the Sundays during Christmas break, I mentioned to Keith how lonely I felt in Missoula. Ever attuned to the Spirit, Keith spoke to my true need. In response to my whiny lament, he said, "Well do something about it. God can't act if you don't." He stared at me for a minute or two, a look of concern furrowing his brow, then smiled and embraced me. His bracing counsel got my attention.
After pondering Keith's admonishment as I flew back to Missoula, I decided to start a supper club. I asked a group of six people if they would be interested in getting together once a week to share a meal. I explained that I was tired of eating supper by myself and just wanted a group to eat with on a regular basis. I was amazed to discover that others were interested in just such a thing. Two sisters in their 20s from Minnesota who attended the local Friends meeting, a red-headed professor from the university’s religion department, a librarian and her graduate student husband, a visiting professor most recently from Louisiana, a hospice nurse with Mennonite connections and I began eating together in each other's homes.
We kept it simple. No agenda, no rules, no expectations. You could come for as long or as little as you wanted. Friends were always welcome. You could prepare any kind of meal as long as there was an option for the resident vegetarian. At first we met for an hour or so and then departed. Within a month, we were lingering over dessert and coffee for long hours into the evening. Our conversation ranged from post-modernism to alpaca farms, from our views of religion to our hopes for the future. On more than one occasion Zac regaled us with tales of his romantic misadventures. A visit from a friend of Beth’s and Britta’s prompted us to reflect on the most influential book we had ever read. Once we took a supper club field trip to natural hot springs just across the border in Idaho and spent the afternoon ruminating about faith and love and justice as we gazed at snowfields all around.
I soon looked forward to Tuesday nights at supper club. It became the highlight of my week. I knew I could count on friendly faces, a delicious meal and good conversation. As we spent more time eating together, we became more comfortable. We laughed easier, shared deeper, lingered later—sometimes until even the long Montana evenings turned dark. Although I still missed Cheryl and the boys, my loneliness was less acute, the ache less constant. The grace born of Keith's admonishment continued to unfold.
And so I wonder about the way God works in my life and in the life of the church. This supper club grace was first of all unexpected. Having left an intentional community in my mid-20s amid painful controversy, I was amazed to discover joy amid a similar community in my mid-40s. The grace made plain in a supper club was also unassuming. We do not feed the poor, represent God’s racial diversity, share a common faith or claim a missional agenda. We just share a meal in each other's homes once a week. Nothing more. Nothing less. Finally, this grace is uncommon. I could not have anticipated that the prayerful assurances of African-American women in Chicago would be born out by white westerners in Montana. Yet what an uncommon gift to find full welcome, unconditional embrace and nonjudgmental acceptance! Too often the church fails to embody such authentic hospitality.
Cheryl and the boys are now with me in Montana. When we arrived, members of our supper club first welcomed us here. As we look for a church community, foster friendships and seek employment for Cheryl and Zachary, we turn first to our supper club with joys and disappointments. Just last Sunday our group floated down the Bitter Root River. As we rested on rented inner tubes, we passed a community of believers gathered for a baptism. I wondered what they thought of us as we passed by. Did they see friends enjoying a Sunday afternoon in Missoula? Did they judge us because we were not on the shore banks with them? Did any of them see a palpable sign of God’s grace—unexpected, unassuming, uncommon—twirling like twigs on the river under a mottled sky?
Some day I expect that Keith will meet this supper club he unknowingly started. He plans on visiting us. When he does, I will tell him again (as I am already doing here) that he was a vehicle for God's grace in my life and those around me. I can only hope our denomination will be stirred by as bracing words of the Spirit as those Keith offered me and so notice the grace that floats by us unannounced.
Tobin Miller Shearer lives in Missoula, Mont.
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