I have walked around with the name of Charles Darwin taped to my back. I have written personal questions on a paper airplane and thrown it across the room. I have been blindfolded and forced to navigate an obstacle course by following the verbal instructions of a stranger. In each case, I recoiled at the juvenile inanity of the ubiquitous icebreaker. However, one of those team-building activities not only taught me a great deal about the personalities and the priorities of those with whom I would be working in close quarters during an intensive three-day workshop. It also allowed me to discover and reflect on one of the most moving experiences of my life. We were sitting in a circle of about 36 chairs, and I was one of the last participants when I told the story of my most memorable meal.
That meal took place at a location not widely known for its relaxing ambience nor for its culinary delicacies, the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh. As a member of the Kairos Prison Ministry, I had spent the previous three days working with a group of 24 residents of this maximum-security prison a couple of miles from the state capitol in Raleigh. With a program including talks and testimonies by lay women and clergy, organized small-group conversations, church services, a healing and forgiveness ceremony, and a lot of singing, Kairos seeks to create servant leaders within the prison population. The residents who participate are chosen from among those with long-term sentences–several years to life–so that they will be able not only to serve as behavioral and spiritual examples to their fellow inmates individually, but also, through accretion over time, to stabilize and harmonize the entire environment.
Both the residents and the Kairos team participants learn numerous valuable lessons, primarily about giving and receiving love. We who left the safety of our pristine homes to spend several days in the drab and sprawling brick complex in one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods learned quickly and forever that we can love murderers, armed robbers, and drug dealers because we saw them through God’s eyes and in his image. Those once-dangerous felons, many of whom had never experienced love, likewise learned–slowly, but I hope forever–to accept and trust that love from others and to feel it for themselves because they finally understood the same lesson we experienced immediately: that they were daughters of God.
One of those lessons in love given and received occurred during the final meal we shared. A great incentive for residents to participate in of Kairos is the food. For three delectable days, they get a reprieve from the sameness of prison food. Members of the kitchen team make hearty and tasty meals–homemade vegetable soup and lasagna and all manner of savory casseroles. Likewise, they provide fresh fruits and vegetables, not readily available in the regular prison diet. Even with the required plastic forks and spoons (plastic knives and all metal utensils can be used as weapons), these family-style meals shared at small tables offer the safety for relaxed conversation, interaction, and trust. In fact, even though I spent most of the weekend with the same six women, mealtimes provided the best opportunities for us to share our mutual stories and develop bonds that lasted long past the long weekend we spent together.
However, I had never begun to understand the fundamental truth that breaking bread together is the first step to Christian community until the kitchen team brought out the hamburgers on our final night together. Grilled patties were already on toasted buns, but the unimaginable delight was the condiments. The enthusiasm was contagious as the women got to choose mustard, mayonnaise, or ketchup–or all three. There were pickles and onions and relish, chili and cheese. Sliced tomatoes and lettuce! It was the food of the gods for these women who never have those choices–or any. I heard gleeful chattering and saw tears on many faces as these, my precious sisters, made their way down the cafeteria line.
As they sat down at their tables, however, the entire room became eerily silent. Slowly, I heard a collective gasp and looked around, bewildered. And then I saw the reason for this moment of awe and disbelief. Members of our team were walking from table to table carrying cafeteria trays filled with cans of cold Pepsi. These women were almost unable to grasp the fact that they had been trusted with a can of soda. They didn’t grumble about sugar or caffeine or a preference for Coke products. They were simply filled with unspeakable gratitude for this unexpected gift of love.
Yes, I believe that Christ is present when we kneel together at the Lord’s Table and receive the gifts of bread and wine in celebration of the Holy Eucharist. But I know he was present in the sharing of cheeseburgers and Pepsi in the gym at the women’s prison in Raleigh. An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, that meal taught me all I need to know about the sacramental nature of daily life. I pray that I will remember it more often.