By Leyla King
This piece originally appeared in the Chattanooga Times Free Press
In her book, “Honeybee,” Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes about the time she was waiting for her delayed flight in the Albuquerque airport when she heard an announcement asking anyone who spoke Arabic to come to gate A-4.
She hurried there to find a distraught Palestinian woman — a stranger — weeping because she had misunderstood the announcement about a delay and thought her flight had been canceled. Nye used her limited language to figure out the problem and explain the solution. But she went further: She called the woman’s family, then Nye’s own Palestinian friends so the woman had others she could speak to familiarly. Soon, the woman, soothed and happy, broke out a tin of Arabic cookies and shared them with all around.
“To my amazement,” wrote Nye, “not a single traveler declined one. It was like a sacrament.”
To the cookies, the airline attendants added free apple juice. Nye went on: “And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person at that gate seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies Not everything is lost.”
As a Christian Palestinian-American myself, I find Nye’s imagery evocative of my own experience of family — and the Church. Every Sunday after church, my family and I would gather at one of my relatives’ homes for what we called “coffee,” but what was, in fact, a feast of Arabic and American food shared with 30 or 40 great-uncles and aunts, first- and second- and third-cousins, generations of people speaking a spectacular mix of Arabic and English over the Spanish-language soccer game that no one understood erupting in the background.
But what all of us understood was this: There is a certain fellowship one gains over a shared meal, through the hospitality that starts with just one person. Eating together has the power to create a sacred bond of love.
Like Nye and her Palestinian friend in the Albuquerque airport and my own relatives at “coffee,” these people are not priests in the traditional sense, but they end up presiding over sacraments of a sort.
In the Episcopal Church, we celebrate the Eucharist — what other denominations call Communion or the Lord’s Supper — of bread and wine every Sunday. It is the main event, the climax, of our worship together. We do so because we understand that when Jesus — an ancient Palestinian — sat down to supper with his friends on the night before he was crucified, he was very much intending to form that sacred bond of love between them all. He knew the power of sharing a meal together. He told them: Any time you want to remember me and my love for you, have a meal. Any time you want to re-enact my love for you, share a meal with someone else.
That’s what we do every time we celebrate the Eucharist. But it’s also what we do whenever we have a meal and fellowship with anyone. It’s what we do when, over shared food, we find our shared humanity. It’s why, in these oh-so-tense times, we should all be seeking out our neighbors who are strangers to us because of differences in creed or color, then sit down with them over cookies and juice or a cup of coffee or bread and wine, and form a sacramental bond of love.
I had my second baby, a little girl, over a year ago now. We named her Beatrice Bahia. “Beatrice” means “one who blesses”; “Bahia” is my Palestinian grandmother’s name and it means, in Arabic, “glorious, radiant, dazzling.” That’s what we do when we seek out another in hospitality, kindness and love; we make a blessing; we make the oh-so-human relationship glorious, dazzling; we make the profane into something truly sacred.
And, as Nye says, “not everything is lost.”
The Rev. Leyla King is rector at Thankful Memorial Episcopal Church in St. Elmo. She lives with her husband and two young children in Sewanee, where she also teaches beginning Arabic at the University of the South.