A lesson after closing

I recently finished reading Earnest J Gaines’ novel A Lesson Before Dying. It is the story of a young black man, Jefferson, in the 1940s who is sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit.  In the story, the only educated man in the town, the schoolteacher, visits him in jail in the months preceding the execution. The teacher is pressured by Jefferson’s mother and his aunt to help “make him into a man” before he dies.
I was very struck by one scene in the novel. The older women, the teacher and a minister have convinced the sheriff to allow them to meet Jefferson in the day room at the prison instead of in the tiny cell. At first it seems they simply want to be able to meet with Jefferson sitting down. Later, the reader realizes that what the women really want is to share a meal with Jefferson, to bring him home cooked food and sit with him in a way that feels normal to them. Embedded in this meal is a lesson that he is a man, not an animal. The sharing of food around a table is a purely human act, a symbol of our interdependence and our unity.

We are not sharing a lot of meals with guests right now. But what we are doing is preparing the way. Just as a jail cell is not the most approachable way to celebrate the Eucharist that comes to us as a simple, nourishing meal, neither is a dirty or chaotic house. We must all calm down, quiet down and sit at the table together so that we might see clearly each one’s humanity.
The same is true for our family shelter. I heard yesterday of yet another family that we could be housing in our empty rooms in the house. And it’s true, we could be sheltering these families’ bodies. But if you know what a sacred act sheltering someone is, you also can understand why we wait and we prepare the way. We want the space to say to our guests, “this is our home and we welcome you.”

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