The twenty-five round tables were already clothed in soft black when we arrived, eight chairs neatly circled round each.
Like the other duos dressed in black pants and white shirts on this shiny Saturday morning, Jenna and I gathered napkins, plastic cutlery, and peppermints from the main serving table to set up our Table # 12.
The church lobby was being transformed into holy ground. No longer a space just to mill about and greet your neighbor, it was becoming a proper sit-down restaurant, awaiting more than a hundred special guests. The annual Kings Banquet.
The first bus rolled in. Then another. Our guests unloaded. Six of them—men of various sizes, outfits, and personalities—quietly took a seat around Table # 12.
Homeless men. Men accustomed to standing in a food line. Or gathering scraps to throw together. Or grilling over a campsite fire.
But not today. Today, these men and women were about to be treated like kings and queens.
Granted, Jenna and I lacked the serving credentials necessary for royalty. Nevertheless, we properly pestered our patrons with, “Can I get you some sweet tea? More coffee?”
And when the catered food came hot out of the ovens, we served up six plates piled high with ham and turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables, rolls, and a separate plate with carved roast beef. “Second helpings, anyone? Chocolate cake? Banana pudding? Both?”
I tried not to cry.
Not out of pity for the men. But out of gratitude for the opportunity to make friends with them.
To swap things around for a couple of hours. To override our differences. To see we were more alike than you’d assume.
- To learn the pony-tailed gentleman has a 23-year-old daughter like me, and he doesn’t get to see his either as much as he’d like because she’s in California and he’s in Alabama
- To ask the man with the book who his favorite authors are (he named three, including Terry McMillan), and discovering he loves reading as much as I do, and that we may have crossed paths at the same public library
- To talk with the big-smile guy about visiting different churches, and inviting him to come to ours when he can, and watching him smile again when I said that
Sure, we had some obvious differences, too. They were dressed in heavy coats and warm hats, critical gear for outside sleeping. Some were exceptionally quiet, reluctant to participate in casual dinner conversation. None were constantly checking cell phones or pulling out iPods.
But the more we talked, the more the similarities surfaced.
And the empty chair at Table # 12?
I wondered if it wasn’t quite the fullest seat of them all. By someone more like us than we knew. Someone who’d fit right in with the least of these, himself knowing homelessness for a season.
Had Jesus been here in the flesh, he’d have looked these brothers in the eye when he talked. Smiled when they responded back. Penetrated to their very souls with hope and grace and forgiveness.
But now he partnered to do it through us. Through me. Me—the one doing a lousy job with any of those. I didn’t even get everyone’s first name.
After a few praise songs, a short talk, and prayers, the men stood up to go back to wherever they had come from. They left us with thank you’s. Smiles. Hugs. The greatest tips we could receive.
Table # 12 was now empty. We threw away the plates. Stacked up the chairs. Put the centerpieces away.
But the love from Table # 12 lingers full on my insides.
Maybe I’ll see one or two of these men around town—at the library or Manna House or on the streets. Maybe we’ll share another smile. And if the circumstances are right, maybe we’ll have another conversation.
And that other guest at Table # 12?
May his royal presence continue reminding us we’re all made in his image, so we’ll judge each other less and love each other more. Be less critical and more caring. Notice fewer of our differences and more of our shared humanity.
Even if poorly and only for a moment. On a wintry Saturday morning. Around Table # 12.
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