Kitchen-table kingdom-building

Here's the text from a talk I gave to my Dad's Spirituality in the Pub session, in Laurimer.  


As a child, I remember that Mum and Dad were friends with all sorts of interesting people. Many of these people would drop around without prior arrangement, and would sit at our kitchen table for the better part of a Saturday morning, or afternoon, or more often than not, both. Stan, for example, would sit there eating the special choc-chip biscuits that Mum made – one after the other – telling long winding stories about his horses, or his dog, or his ex-wife. We all came in and out of the room, sitting for periods of time to hear part of a story, before moving off to do something else, while he continued to sit and eat biscuits and talk. It didn’t really matter who was there, as long as there was someone.

Sometimes we also had prearranged visitors, who weren’t just dropping in from down the road but came from further afield. Like David Baretti, who gave us Cherry Ripes and spoke very, very slowly. Or Murray, who was a big man with a square jaw and glasses, who Mum described as ‘a bit simple’. These people would come on a Saturday for a barbeque. I remember Sharon and Ben, who Mum used to laugh hysterically with at the kitchen table, and who had a daughter whose birthday party we all attended.

When I was older, I discovered that Sharon and Ben were drug addicts, and that Murray had an intellectual disability, and David Baretti had schizophrenia. When Stan died, I learnt that he had been a very, very lonely old man.

I am really grateful to my parents for not using those labels. To me, these people were just people – who had interesting quirks, were often funny, who played with us and were generally really nice. For example, Stan taught us how to ride his horses and how to shoot a gun. David Baretti talked to us kids on the phone and always laughed heartily at our terrible jokes, especially when we called him “David Spaghetti Meatballs”. He once shouted the whole eight members of the Reale family to Red Rooster.

For most of my childhood, I was bursting to grow up and leave home, and make new fabulous friends and have a life of my own. As soon as I finished school that’s what I did – packing my clothes and a new kettle into the family Tarago, and setting up my new wonderful life in the Halls of Residence at Monash University. I had always been very social justice-orientated. In school I was involved in the 40 Hour Famine, and later became passionate about the issue of sweatshop labour. I remember handing out fliers outside Disney on Ice, informing the parents of excited children exactly where and under what conditions their cute Micky Mouse toys and printed pyjamas were made in. I decided to study politics and international relations and law, with the vague hope that I would do something ‘social justicey’ with it all, at some point in my life. 

While I was at uni, I was involved in a few different social justice movements. The first was Fair Trade, where I helped set up a group that campaigned for Fairtrade coffee to be served in all the cafés on campus. Then when I was 21, I went off to New Orleans, where I worked as a legal intern to assist people on death row who had no resources to defend themselves. Mainly I did a lot of photocopying.

These were all amazing, formational experiences, and I made some wonderful friends throughout it all. It was not, however, incarcerated people in America, or coffee farmers in Brazil, that won me over, but an old church in the heart of the Melbourne CBD. This church was Collins Street Baptist.

I actually came across this place while I was still in high school, when a small group of students and teachers ventured into the city on a weekday evening, to see how an inner-city church was responding to homelessness and drug addiction. Collins Street Baptist is a stately, Corinthian-pillared church on the Paris-end of Collins Street. Its Sanctuary is stark and formal, with an enormous organ dominating the wall at the front. However it wasn’t the church sanctuary that drew me in, but the church basement. It was a long, oddly-shaped room that was painted in bright colours, with a big long table running down the middle of it and seats all around. It had a peculiar smell, somewhere between candle-wax and lasagne, and a half a dozen flies perpetually flew around some imaginary spot at one end of the room. A battered guitar hung on the wall, next to a heavy gnarled cross. It was love at first sight.

I learnt that the place was called Credo Café, and it was where Urban Seed – a ministry begun by Collins Street Baptist Church – hosted a daily lunch. Most weekdays, a variety of people from all walks of life filed in through the side-door to share a meal. People who were homeless, others who were students, people who were unemployed or struggling with mental illness, people with drug addictions, others from local churches and businesses. Everybody sat around that big long table together, and shared good food and good conversation.

Credo Café had not always been there. Here is the story of how it started: 

It was the late 1980s, and Christendom was seriously in decline. Not only that, but the people who were going to church weren’t attending in the city, but were going to suburban churches, closer to where they lived. Gone were the days when every wooden pew of Collins Street Baptist Church creaked with the weight of a family, and when journalists sat in the gallery to take down the sermon in short-hand and report it in the evening paper. Gone were the days when the service was broadcast on 3AW. While Collins Street Baptist Church was once at the centre of life in one of Australia’s largest and most powerful cities, it now faced a crisis of relevance. Like many long-standing institutions, it was forced to ask itself this question: “What is the point of us existing?”

The answer to this question came in an intriguing way. The minister of the church at the time – a guy called Ron – was one day standing under the beautiful white-pillared portico of the church, overlooking the plush Paris-end of Collins Street. His gaze panned across the Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren shop fronts, with their $1000 handbags and garments, and settled on City Square. There he noticed people who were clearly homeless, lying on benches and begging to passers by. Ron asked himself, “How is it that this church is housed in this beautiful old building, while there are people – just across the road – who have no house at all?” And how, he may have added, could we, as residents of the Kingdom of God, let this happen on our watch?

To our question, “How are we relevant?” we heard a clear answer: “Just look outside your front door!” I think that sometimes, when gazing at our navels and wondering what God wants us to do with our lives, what God actually wants us to do is look up, and see who needs our help.

What Collins Street Baptist Church did was invite three young people to move into the church building. There was a caretaker’s apartment on the ninth floor of the building annexed to the church sanctuary, and this is where they lived. They were charged with the task of caring for the church, but also venturing outside and seeing who else was in the neighbourhood. So when they weren’t changing light globes and fixing broken pews, these three young people wandered the streets of Melbourne, meeting the people who called the streets their home. And then they invited the people they met into their own home for a simple meal, sharing in food and conversation. I imagine that it was probably not so different from the hospitality my family offered, to the wonderful, sad, beautiful, troubled friends that sat at our kitchen table all those miles away, in Whittlesea.

Eventually that simple meal, in the living room of the caretaker’s apartment, moved downstairs into the church basement, where many more people could be welcomed. This was Credo Café, the place I fell in love with that day as a high school student. A few years later, as a fully-fledged university student, I made my way back to Credo Café. I found myself instantly at home again, this time in the company of the many unique and wonderful Credo regulars. It’s funny how you can travel such a long way, and you think you are in a completely different world, and then you look up and realise that you’ve come a full circle, and you’re right back at home.

When I was at the tail end of my university course, I became an Urban Seed Resident, which meant I moved into the church building, just like those original three. Here I also practised inviting people who others saw as outcasts into my home, to share in good food and conversation. In some ways, I was simply doing what my family had always done: making sure there was always room available for someone else. 

I don’t live in the church anymore, but live with my husband in an apartment down the street, way up in the sky overlooking the city and the hills beyond. But we continue to open our home to our friends: some of whom are homeless, or struggle with mental illness, or have drug or gambling addictions. There is a group of us that have one of these meals every second week. I was down at Rye the other week, spending time with Gran, when I casually mentioned that I had eight people coming to dinner that night. It was already early afternoon, and Gran nearly had a heart attack at the prospect of me putting on a dinner party for eight people in less than four hours, when I still had to get back home. I think Gran had in mind canapés and beef wellington, but I told her to relax because this was going to be a one-pot wonder. My mum used to cook for eight people every night, and I have learnt over the years that putting on a meal for a group of people doesn’t have to be a big deal. It can be a way of life.

The gospels are full of stories of Jesus eating with people. This was a world in which it mattered who you ate with. If you were Jewish you obviously wouldn’t sit at a table with a non-Jew. If you were wealthy it would be ridiculous to even think about sharing a meal with a beggar. In some ways, it’s no different to how we eat now. We tend to break bread with people who are a lot like ourselves. That’s, of course, when we’re not eating alone. 

But Jesus flouted all of that, by deciding to share food and conversation with people at the bottom of the heap, like beggars and people with disabilities, as well as people that others despised, like prostitutes and the tax collectors that made a career of ripping their fellow-citizens off. And of course, he ate with the religious, economic and political elite as well. Often he would completely do their heads in, but having them all share a meal together. 

In the army, officers are not meant to eat with their soldiers. Social workers are not meant to share meals with clients. Why is that? Well, it’s because breaking bread is a powerful thing. In that moment, we come together, in a way that is deeply humanising and deeply equalising. There is something about partaking in the same meal, dished up from the same one-pot wonder, that says, “We’re not so different, after all.” We all chew, and swallow, and go to the toilet at some point afterwards. It’s an admission of our common humanity, the act of sharing a meal. A nod to our common vulnerability, that says that we are as dependent on the gracious provision of sustenance as the next person – whether private or officer, social worker or client. And it’s a celebration of life – a rejoicing in a party of flavours and textures, that our bodies, delightfully, are designed to take in and enjoy. It’s hard to keep everybody in rank and file with all that going on!

In short, sharing a meal is a kind of bodily communion, of flesh and spirit coming together to give thanks and celebrate life. It is nothing less than sacred.

So that’s what we do, at Urban Seed. It’s pretty simple, really, this coming together of people who are homeless and marginalised, to join in common humanity with other people who are also damaged and broken, in other kinds of ways. In the end, it’s what we all need, right? A kitchen table, or a table at the pub, to sit around; a family to belong to. Not everybody has a family or a kitchen table, which is why it’s important that we share what we have with each other, and why it’s important that we come to the pub, and share in communion there as well.

You know, my family didn’t open their door to all those weird and wonderful people as an act of charity. Neither do I eat lunch in Credo Café out of deep and pure sense of altruism. Basically, we all just really enjoy each other’s company! And the delightful thing about serving our neighbours’ needs by inviting them round for lunch, or going out to the pub together, is that if we do this with truly open hearts, we will find our neighbours serving our needs, too! This is the Kingdom of God at work, and it’s a tasty, wondrous thing to take part.  

Cheers to that!