During a Catholic mass, the cues for when to stand, sit, kneel, hold hands, raise hands, and speak are all codified. There is comfort in the routine, and as I’ve learned more about the intention behind the ritual, there is meaning in the practice.
Still, I am fascinated by the growing popularity of dinner churches which build the entire worship experience around a literal meal.
A few weekends ago Brett (the fiancee) and I waded through an unexpected monsoon and arrived dripping wet at St. Lydia’s, one such dinner church in Brooklyn housed on the first floor of a cheery three story building. With a chalkboard easel featuring the church’s cross logo propped outside the door, St. Lydia’s could easily be mistaken for another coffee shop, if not for the enormous street-facing windows that provide passersby a glimpse into the worship within and the wooden cross occupying one brick wall.
St. Lydia’s is by far the coziest worship space I have ever walked into. On the far end is a spacious kitchen. Tree branches hang overhead and three oval tables take up most of the room (“Better for conversation than circular,” one congregant mentioned.)
Brett and I were immediately put to work assisting with the finishing touches of that evening’s dinner, stirring together ingredients for a peanut sauce, diluting with water and tasting as we went. By the time the meal was fully prepped, 15-20 congregants had gathered: a core group of regulars who greeted each other as they fished around drawers for serving spoons or leafed through music in a corner, a visitor sourcing ideas for his own fledgling dinner church, and a few others just checking it out.
At a sign from the pastor, Rev. Elsa Marty, we gathered in a circle. One longtime congregant, Hannah, served as music leader and taught us a simple hymn. As another congregant began winding the knob of a Shruti box to create a sort of chant drone, we began singing.
Reminding us that we were in the season of Easter, Pastor Elsa took a palm frond, dipped it into the water from a tin basin doubling as a baptismal font, and playfully flicked it at each of us. The Eucharistic prayer followed, an early version at once familiar and foreign pulled from “The Didache”, a first century text:
“We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David Your child, which You revealed through Jesus Your child; to You be the glory forever. We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You revealed through Jesus Your child; to You be the glory forever. As this piece of bread was scattered over the hills and then brought together and made one, so let your church be brought together through the ends of the Earth and to Your kingdom.”The Didache
From there we proceeded to the tables. Pastor Elsa explained that the church was experimenting with language. As we each broke a piece of bread and offered it to the person next to us, we were invited to say, “This is God’s gift.”
Once all had partaken in the bread – rosemary; delicious – we seated ourselves and shared in dinner and conversation, followed by Scripture reading and reflection similar to the meditative read-reflect-reread-share pattern of lectio divina, cleaned up, and then returned to the tables to share a cup of grape juice – the second half of the Eucharist – and a final hymn. At some point, a few pints of ice cream materialized on a counter.
While St. Lydia’s might come across as unconventional, one could argue it’s simply going back to the basics.
For one thing, it is sacramental. “The Eucharist is at the heart of our worship,” Pastor Elsa explained. “Sacraments are where God’s Word and promise meets a material and ordinary thing. In that ordinary thing we encounter God’s grace. Here we especially do that around the table, sharing a meal together. It helps pull out the different resonances. God cares about our body and our lives in the world.”
At St. Lydia’s, you will both break bread and share conversation. This merging of the sacred and the ordinary resonates. Hannah – the same longtime congregant who taught us all the chants and songs during the service – told me that she’s been coming back to St. Lydia’s for seven years.
“A lot of times, Christian spaces can be rough. In life in general there is a lot of pitting us against each other,” she said. “St. Lydia’s is welcoming. I’m an introvert and my MO in the average church is basically, ‘I’ll sit in the back row and not speak and leave once the service is over.’ That’s not the case here. This space encourages introvert leadership. I was singing today, which is wild. It empowers you. The community is holding you. We offer support in a world where you are told not to trust.”
Each part of the liturgy is intentional. Breaking the bread and sharing the cup serve as bookends, so that the sacrament pervades the entire experience. The Eucharistic prayer’s use of language from Chapters 9-10 of “The Didache” draws on our earliest known use of the term “Eucharist”, taken from the Greek eucharistia and the Hebrew berekah, both meaning thanksgiving. The text as a whole serves as a morality code and worship guide and is a fascinating window into the church of the 1st century.
It is quite possible that this first hundred years of Christian worship more closely resembled St. Lydia’s than most liturgies we know today. The early church that emerges in Acts of the Apostles is one centered around house worship and communal meals, a radical choice for a society as hierarchical as Ancient Rome.
“If you look at different cultures throughout history, there were strict rules about who you could and could not eat with,” Pastor Elsa said. “There were conditions about where you sat at the table, about men and women eating together, about different castes… sharing a meal builds intimacy much faster than your average coffee hour.”
As does cooking a meal. “If it were just eating a meal together, it would be nice, but kind of limited,” Hannah said. “But if I come here, and someone tells me to chop vegetables, I can choose how much interaction I want. I can be laser focused on chopping these vegetables or I can talk. Even if you and me have nothing in common in the world, right now we are both chopping peppers. We are dependent on each other. I can’t do this if you are not here.”
The church’s namesake is part of this early history. A trader in the coveted purple dye used by the Roman elite, Lydia of Thyatira features in Acts of the Apostles as an early Gentile convert who plays host to Paul during his travels. “The idea of calling it St. Lydia’s was to emphasize hospitality,” Pastor Elsa said. “Lydia heard Paul preaching, was curious and wanted to hear more, and then asked that she and her household be baptized. Then she said, ‘Come and stay with me. I insist that you stay at my home.’ She received grace from Christ and immediately opened her door to others. And she is a woman. When women appear in Scripture, pay attention!”
I found Lydia in Acts before writing this post and discovered that she opened her doors to Paul and his group immediately after one of their many prison stints. Her choice was as courageous as it was gracious.
God walks among the pots and pans.
So said 16th century Spanish mystic and theologian St. Teresa of Avila when confronted with some fellow Carmelite sisters bemoaning how the excessive time involved in cleaning for an entire convent infringed on their spiritual practice.
I could not think of a better phrase to sum up St. Lydia’s.
If you liked this, you should also check out:
- Rachel Held Evans’s Inspired – It is impossible to do justice to how much Rachel Held Evans’s compassionate words will be missed. In her latest book, she manages to meld memoir, fiction, and commentary as she winds her way through each book of the Bible. The fictional interlude leading into her chapter on Acts movingly captures the dinner churches of the first century from the perspective of Rachel’s creation, Aelia, a poor shepherd’s wife who eats with the widows at her local house church and puzzles over the revolutionary nature of Paul’s words. A letter from Lydia also reaches her community, bearing witness to “the story of an executed Jew who rose from the dead circulating like a strange new spice along the trade routes…” (192, Evans).
- Kendall Vanderslice’s We Will Feast – To say I was excited to discover a book exists about the dinner churches of today and that its author is a baker turned theologian hovering around my age is an understatement. So. You should all read Vanderslice’s “We Will Feast” which came out this May and includes a chapter on St. Lydia’s. I especially appreciated Vanderslice’s take on the Gospels as basically an ancient road trip broken up by dinners with Jesus, his disciples, and a revolving door of prostitutes, tax collectors, and Pharisees.
- Final note – this blog is now on Instagram! You can follow me at FoodFaithBlog for story updates and interview outtakes.