The ease with which people enter into community at St. Lydia’s is a natural occurrence—after all, preparing a meal is something that is done each and every day.
“Eating a meal together is something we all share on a primordial level,” participant Jason Whittle said. As one of the head chefs preparing the meal on this particular week, he mentioned how food has a power that initiates fellowship among people of all backgrounds, denominations and faiths. “We come into community by the act of sharing a meal,” he said.
As a couple dozen congregants arrive, the murmurs of voices intertwine as the anticipation of the feast rises. As the clock moves toward 7:00, the final napkin is placed on the table, and the last chair is put in place. To commence the service, Pastor Emily Scott gathers the congregation into a circle near the front entrance. Holding hands, the congregation is led by Rachel Pollak, serving as tonight’s worship leader, in a call-and-response chant taken from an ancient oral tradition. With the lights dimmed, Scott gives a blessing and illuminates a candle to share by passing the light around the circle. As the candles provide a slow awakening of light, all sing a call-and-response anthem to “The Lord is My Light.” Scott travels around the circle anointing oil on each person’s forehead. Now, the worship service is officially begun; the feast awaits.
As the meal begins, a prayer is recited from the Didache, the earliest known Eucharist prayer from the early church. Scott breaks the bread apart and says, “This is my body.” Passing the bread around the circle, each one proceeds to break the bread, gives it to their neighbor and repeats, “This is my body.”
The bread for the Eucharist is made each week by congregant and pastry chef Claire Sullivan, who makes it using a natural starter oven with yeast from the air.
“We’re always happier when the bread is homemade, warm, and nourishing,” Scott said. “When it goes around and people say, ‘That’s so good!,’ it’s the way we want people to feel and say God is good.”
This communal practice of the Eucharist differs from many other mainline Protestant faith traditions in which the pastor presides over the sacrament and serves each person individually. Since the entire meal at St. Lydia’s is comprised of symbolizing Christ’s body in community, the passing of the bread is formulated with a simple principle: “Those who come to the table are hungry, and they are fed.”
Grape juice (no wine is allowed in the Zen Center) and water pour into cups, leftover bread from the Eucharist is devoured as part of the meal, and large servings of tonight’s main dish--Panzanella salad--are served.
Exclamations of laughter are heard over the clinging resonance of silverware. Here is where “sharing the meal” comes to its climax—human beings communicating with one another over the most basic human need of hunger.
“When you take bread of the Eucharist, the bread is equivalent to life,” Scott said. “There’s a sense that every time we eat, we are not only aware of the life God’s given us, but the fact that we are not immortal, that we die. It’s about how our lives are made up of living and dying and all of those pieces.”
When the meal is complete, Scott arises and leads the congregation in drinking the cup of grape juice. Declaring Jesus’ words “this is my blood,” all take a sip which marks the end of the holy meal.
Burke Gerstenschlager, a congregant for six months, immediately connected with St. Lydia’s practices of the Eucharist. Gerstenschlager, the academic editor for religion, education and sociology at Palgrave Macmillian, has studied and partaken in numerous Eucharist practices throughout his life, but believes none have been as satisfying for him as this one.
“The action of it is a very unifying experience. It both gives and receives,” he said. “It’s much more communal and egalitarian.”
After the cup is taken and more songs are sung, the night transitions into a time of group sharing and Scripture reading. Tonight’s meditation is on John 14:1-7 where Jesus tells his disciples about his upcoming absence in death.
For those unacquainted with the New Testament story, St. Lydia’s provides a measured pace of reading through the story so that each person can try to make sense of it and how it might be relevant to the cultivation of one’s heart.
St. Lydia’s uses an ancient early church practice called Lectio Divinia in which one reads through the Scripture passage multiple times, taking time in between for reflection and meditation. Each person read:
14 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God[a]; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”
5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.7 If you really know me, you will know[b] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Afterward, Scott shares an 8-10 minute sermon recited with the eloquence and ease of a seasoned poet.
“So even as Jesus is telling us ‘I’ve got to go,’ and telling us that he is preparing a place for us, he’s also telling us that we already know the way to the place that he’s going,” Scott speaks as light from the candles sway back and forth upon her face. “He’s also telling us that everything we need to know him, to know God, is right here, in this moment. Here and now.”
With no aim to arouse religious conviction or provide feverous theological doctrine, she aims only to ignite cognition, provoke reflection and let the Spirit do the moving. Scott’s theological vignette is merely telling her story to the congregation—the second pillar of their community. The group takes a discussion time immediately after the sermon and welcomes anyone to share their thoughts on the passage, on the sermon or really anything on their mind.
“People want to be heard, and they want to tell their stories,” Pollak observed. “They want to listen to each other and know each other. These are things they naturally know how to do.”
This time of sharing is an open book of opportunities for the congregants. Sitting at the table, each one has the freedom to share what they feel, expose their vulnerability and formulate questions. This is a practice that the participants believe is a scarcity in so many places of worship today.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Whittle said. “It’s rare for people to become so transparent, especially in New York City. “
“This is a safe place to ask questions,” Gerstenschlager added. “We receive affirmation in the question, and not necessarily in the answer.” This approach is exactly the amiable outcome that Scott hoped would happen.
“There’s room for missteps and confusion,” she said. “It’s part of a community where we are gracious with one another and forgiving. There’s not a value judgment on where people are.”
A social research survey by the Barna organization found that a fundamental barrier between people and the church is exactly that—fearing judgment.
“The message that extremely formal liturgies can send is that you need to practice something until it’s perfect for you to present it to God,” Scott said. “I don’t think anyone could leave St. Lydia’s understanding that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The tension between formal religious worship and a personal faith is something Pollak is extremely familiar with in her own life.
“St. Lydia’s has enabled someone like me, who 10 years ago just had a passing interest [in Christianity] and not really knowing why, to come in and feel welcome,” she said. “There was a place for me where I could start to work it out.”
Next: "Food politics and dirty dishes in #Brooklyn church"
St. Lydia's now meets every Sunday and Monday at 304 Bond Street between Union and Sackett Streets in Brooklyn. Arrive between 6:30 and 7:00. An eight minute walk from Union Street stop on the R and a six minute walk from the Carroll Street stop on the F/G.