The air seemed different behind prison walls. More sterile in a way. I stood there waiting behind the first gate, waiting for that distinct buzzing sound so I could move through the next one. Everything looked different from the “free” world. Lots of uniformed guards. Rows upon rows of wire and barbed fencing. Concrete as far as your eye could see.
I was jerked back to my senses as the infamous buzzer sounded and we moved through our next gate. Within a few minutes we were in the VP room setting up equipment for the day and getting ready for the inmates to come filing in.
It was only our second day “behind bars”. Ever. My friend and ministry team-mate, MaryEllen and I had taken the plunge into prison ministry. We had no idea what we were in for. What does that even look like? And just what were we to expect?
We had heard stories. Good and bad. Going through prison security, putting on a PBA (Personal Body Alarm) each morning and standing in front of a room full of incarcerated women was a completely different level. This was real.
Barely catching the swing of things by the second day, we stood waiting for the women to come in for class. We had prayed like crazy for these ladies. We had even wondered what on earth we could offer them…two gals from rural America who said YES to a daring call. What did that even mean?
Little did I know that day two behind barbed wire fencing would be life-changing. And it all started around a table.
We had been invited (and cleared by prison officials) to join the inmates for lunch. It seemed like a good idea. Mostly because we were hungry. We had no idea what lunchtime would be like in prison, and we certainly couldn’t have predicted what happened.
I’ll spare you all the details…but suffice it to say, we experienced a meal unlike anything we had ever eaten or been a part of before. In the history of our entire lives.
Much of it is normal life for the inmates but we weren’t used to the fast-paced and loud way mealtime is for these women. After being herded along through the line, we were given a tray of food and told to find a seat at one of the tables in the concrete room.
I remember feeling a little like a deer in the headlights. This was all new to me. One by one, the inmates helped me navigate the lunch line and “chow hall”. Where were the drinks? Another inmate motioned me over to some coolers with water in them and a stack of cups. I thanked her and breathed relief. Grabbing my water I found a seat at one of the tables. Each table seated four, so three inmates circled the table with me as I stared at my tray.
I knew they were watching me. I could make out what most of it was…but one pile of something looked unfamiliar. “So, what is this?” I asked one of the gals sitting next to me. She smirked and responded, “It’s supposed to be pudding.” Oh.
The room was loud. Very loud. There was a constant bustle of people, noises and guards yelling orders. Not exactly what my supper table at home sounded like. I tried to tune it all out and eat…chicken on the bone, and a bunch of other things on the sectioned tray in front of me.
Meanwhile, the women at my table fired questions a mile a minute. They seemed suddenly so open and they wanted to know about my life and tell me about theirs. I listened, tried to answer questions and still manage to eat my chicken. Finally, one gal leaned over and said, “You’re gonna have to eat that chicken with your hands if you want to get it down before they move us out of here.” She was right. I put down my spork and went to town with my fingers. When in Rome, do as the Romans, right?
Seven minutes goes by fast. In no time, we were in a line to dispose of our lunch trays and go back to our afternoon classes. I was overwhelmed by how fast lunch went. I’d never ate chicken on the bone that quickly…and may not ever try to again. An inmate stepped in front of me and held out her hands. “May I take care of that tray for you?” She looked about my mom’s age. I smiled and nodded. Truth is, I was clueless as to how they did that part too. She probably saw that in my eyes…mothering instinct and all. She kindly took my tray.
I thought about how crazy the scene was before me. I had come here to offer Jesus to these women…and they were offering Him to me as well. They needed what I was offering them…and I needed them too. Maybe that’s what the Table of the Lord does for us. It makes us aware of who is sitting next to us. We need each other. I needed to be taken care of by these inmates who knew the prison ropes far better than I did.
We need each other. God made it that way. On purpose. Hungering for Jesus draws us together…often, around at table.
Later that day, I would sit in my dorm room with MaryEllen and talk about our amazing lunch experience. What blew us away was their heart responses to our eating with them. They were so grateful that we ate with them. OVERWHELMING gratitude. Profuse thankfulness.
Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that we humans bond around tables. Kitchen tables. Banquet tables. Even prison lunch tables. Where there are people and food…there will be heart ties. God made it that way. Church potlucks. Back yard barbeques. Little girl tea parties. Coffee shop tables. The Table is a place of covenant. Partaking of food together bonds us.
This is why at least once during each of our Rural Queens Bible study semesters, we share a meal together. We make a menu, divide up who-is-bringing-what and gather in the kitchen to cook and prepare a meal as a team. There’s something about ten or twelve girls gathering in a kitchen to cook, laugh and eat a meal. What happens around the table is supernatural. God comes and meets with us. He ties our heart-strings together with Himself.
In a world of fast-paced craziness and busy schedules, tables are often empty. Sitting around a table is a thing of the past. We eat in shifts, on the couch, or on the run. We can’t sit so we drive thru and grab fast food. Table meals are relegated to holidays…mostly the ones when a big football game isn’t on TV. Our tables sit alone in the dining room, looking pretty but collecting dust.
Don’t you want more? I’m hungry for more than just an occasional snack at His Table. I crave real relationships. The kinds that are forged around the table…both in good times and bad. The kind of table conversations that leave me hungering for Jesus. The kind of meals around the table that lead me ultimately to His Table. I’m honestly tired of settling for nibbles of the world when I can have an amazing feast at His Table.
Come to His Table.
Jesus invites us to dine with Him. His open arms are for us…but we also have seats at His Table. It reminds me of Luke 14 where Jesus says to prepare a meal and invite the broken of the world to your table. The poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind…offer them Jesus. Take Him to the hungry souls of the world and feed His goodness to them. Jesus says that when we feed those who can’t repay us, we “will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” That’s eternal rewards for earthly actions.
I’m hungry…and with me a whole world of dying, wounded, and broken people. What if the answer to the world’s hunger was at the table? Your kitchen table? His Table.