This October marks two years since the first Dinner Table Church on World Communion Sunday in 2018. (World Communion Sunday is a day to celebrate the holy sacrament.)
Dinner Table Church, a ministry of Sojourner Truth Ministries, is nestled in north central Pennsylvania. Both ministries are led by Wesleyan Pastor Angelique Labadie. Dinner Table Church is positioned in the small city of Williamsport, where poverty rates are more than double the national average. The racially mixed neighborhood is known for poverty and illegal activities, especially substance abuse, but is also a place where people accept one another without pretense and expectations. Individuals participating in Dinner Table Church are predominately low income, food insecure or homeless.
Sojourner Trust Ministries, a parachurch ministry, was already established, and Labadie started Dinner Table Church to incorporate more ministry opportunities to share the gospel with those in the community.
“People come just as they are,” said Labadie, who said 20-30 people attend the gathering (numbers have reached approximately 80 at some meals). “We have people in wheelchairs and using walkers, white and black, intellectual and non-intellectual, those with physical disabilities and those without, those who are clean and those who are filthy. We have people seeking Jesus, people who come in high on substances just to get off the streets and people in recovery. We also see people with histories and stigmas that keep them from moving forward, people who are actively struggling with disruptive mental health issues, people who are openly broken and those who are recently delivered from something. All are welcome in the name of Jesus.”
Before COVID-19 hit, Saturday gatherings included worship (songs played on YouTube) and a brief message. Sometimes, the 30-minute gatherings included Scripture readings, object lessons, testimonies and spontaneous sharing or singing, which were often interactive (and somewhat unpredictable). Gatherings would be followed with a meal provided by area churches that sign up to bring or prepare the meal. Dinner Table Church was truly a church that provided dinner around a table.
Labadie, along with the other Dinner Table Church leaders (from various denominations), were inspired by the book of Acts in meeting needs in the community: feeding and fellowship, connecting cultures between churches and neighborhoods, hearing God’s Word, having a place to belong and praying together.
“The meal provides not only provision but opportunity to interact with supporting churches and to bridge the economic and cultural divide, while experiencing level ground at the foot of the cross,” said Labadie. “We have seen people respond to accept Jesus as their Savior, openly weeping in response to messages and having someone approach them to pray.”
Since COVID-19 started, however, Dinner Table Church has come to a screeching halt. Gatherings around a table were no longer permitted.
Labadie and the volunteer team have not stopped and are using local churches to provide take-out meals staffed by people who feel safe in assisting. Since the in-person gatherings still rely heavily on volunteers from area churches and because of COVID-19 restrictions, the in-person Dinner Table Church has not reconvened.
Labadie is looking forward to gathering again, because she knows how life-changing these times together can be.
“I have seen the Holy Spirit transform those who come to help, as well as those who come to worship,” said Labadie. “People who may not otherwise have opportunities to come into contact share meals together, as volunteers are strongly encouraged to interact and join in meals with the ‘sojourners.’ The ‘sojourners’ often find a new listener and enjoy special meals designed to feel more like a family Thanksgiving time than a structured fellowship.”
When men and women regather at the Dinner Table Church, it will be difficult to keep them apart as they “do life” together in these sacred moments throughout the week.
“Our people do not social distance,” said Labadie. “They share cigarettes, phones and personal space. Often, masks are lost or disregarded. The whole idea of filling dinner tables with conversation and visiting seems far off right now. But I still go outside on the front steps, and between traffic noises, I read the Word or share short messages for the remnant who come to hear before beginning to serve the [to-go] meals.”