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A Crowded Chancel with Jesus at the Table

“Have you ever done this?,” one of the students asked me. I responded, “Having the whole community in the chancel for the worship service? No, this is the first time.” Her question got me thinking. Why did we do it? Whose idea was it? How did we get to that decision? I could not remember, but I know that it felt like the most appropriate way of closing the Raíces Latinas Leadership Institute at Boston University School of Theology this summer.

Raíces Latinas Leadership Institute calls and equips new generations of Hispanic/Latino leadership for ministries in the church and society. It was held August 3-7, 2015. This year it happened simultaneously with the Hispanic Youth Leadership Academy – college level, a leadership pipeline that accompanies participants through high school and college, gathering them every summer. The result of having both events concurrently was a group of almost 40 young adult participants who are in college, seminary, or post-graduate programs. Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics and Disciples of Christ participants were discerning their call to ministry while exploring topics such as ecclesiology, spirituality, Pentecostalism, identity, justice, immigration, and mass incarceration.

Daily rituals were an important component of the program and I was honored to serve as the chaplain of the event to facilitate the rituals. We began and ended each day meditating on ministry as accompaniment. Each day we reflected on a part of the biblical story known as the walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) tying it to the themes of the day. The opening ritual for the Institute we walked in pairs into the worshiping space talking about the expectations we had for the week. Once in the worshiping space, we set a table together. Every participant added a piece – a tablecloth, a spoon, a fork, a knife, a plate, a cup or a centerpiece. Our actions resembled those of the walkers who shared their anxieties as they walked to Emmaus and then set the table to break bread with the stranger who walked with them. Yet, our actions also embodied a particular understanding of church, one in which all members have something to bring to the table in order to build one thing out of many different parts – a different metaphor for the body of Christ.

Since we began the week setting the table for each other, we wanted to end the week by eating together. As a participant pointed out, what was missing in our table setting was the food. Accordingly, our closing ritual included breaking of the bread while we also remembered that the walkers to Emmaus broke bread and then recognized Jesus. Hopefully we would find in that experience the inspiration to go back with a different understanding, in a similar manner that the walkers decided to go back to Jerusalem to tell others what had happened on the road, and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. Therefore, we gathered around the table in the chancel, a space for ministers and leaders.

Around the table we were in dialogue with the Divine One through song, prayer, and scripture reading. Around the table we listened to the Word, we shared a meal, and we were commissioned to serve God and el Pueblo. Around the table, now about 60 worshipers with the addition of the advisory board and the faculty of the Institute, we heard the Word interpreted and proclaimed through a collective sermon entitled “Back to Jerusalem.” Three participants shared the connections they perceived between their life experiences; the experience of the walkers in Luke 24:30-35 of breaking bread, recognizing Jesus, and returning to Jerusalem; and their decision of going back to their contexts to serve their communities in particular ways that honor their gifts and the tools they acquired in the Leadership Institute. The sermon was a beautiful combination of their gifts and wisdom. Not only we heard their stories and ideas about the scripture passage, but we also saw dance, a soccer ball and a preacher wearing soccer gear, all with music coming from an acoustic guitar.

We responded to the Word breaking bread and drinking milk mixed with honey, a ritual that we adapted for our context from a “mujerista ritual” (Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996, 179-185). From the table we were commissioned. Each participant took an element from the table setting and gave it to someone else. With our newly received tools we walked out from the chancel and stood in front of Marsh Chapel, facing the pews, the doors, the world. Standing there, looking out, we heard how we are diverse in ministry; analogous to how different elements are needed to set a table. Many looked at their spoon or their cup while being encouraged to go back to their own “Jerusalems” and set the table for others in the particular ways that each one of us has been called to do so. Then we walked out of the chapel together singing “Enviada soy de Dios…(I am sent by God).”

In the end, whose idea was it or how did we get to that decision is not as important as the fact that we did something together to encounter the Giver of Life. We walked together, we remembered the walkers who went back to Jerusalem, and we walked back to our contexts to tell others what had happened at the Leadership Institute, and how we met Jesus once more in the breaking of the bread.

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