Originally posted at Real Live Preacher on April 25th, 2006. Requested by Brad Chittick.
I don’t know how many of you are out there. I have some statistics that suggest there are a lot of you. A very large number of you. I try not to think about that when I’m writing. It’s hard, but I have to keep my eye on the ball. I have to pay attention to the writing and not think about the people who will read it.
But yeah, I know there are a bunch of you. Sometimes I think about you when I’m not writing. I imagine people sitting in front of their computers, their faces aglow with a blue light. I will not be able to explain this, but somehow you feel like friends to me. My Real Live Preacher friends.
That’s crazy, I know. But that’s how it feels.
It’s completely impossible, but it would be fun if we could all get together just once. I would reserve a huge banquet hall and fill it with round tables. The tables would be loaded down with wonderful bread. French loaves, doughnuts, fresh baguettes, cinnamon sticky buns, croissants, every kind of bread you could name. And there would be homemade jam, fresh churned butter, and honey too. There would have to be wine, of course. Bottles and bottles of it. More than anyone has ever seen in one place. There would be other drinks, sodas and coffee and tea. Plenty for everyone.
Children would run and play among the tables, handing out bread and getting pats on the head. After the wine had flowed, the conversation would flow as well, and just for one night we would all believe in neighbors and friendship and love.
You there. Lonely girl. Yes, I see you. Even you would come to believe. Because if you were standing around wondering where to sit, a hundred people would pull out a chair and wave you over. You would blush and your heart would pound in your chest because it feels so good to be wanted.
The buzz of a thousand conversations would throb in the air. Some people would close their eyes and sway to the ancient feeling of that sound. Listen to the Om, to the growling roll of the multitude.
After a time I would step up to a microphone. You would hear a faint, “ding ding ding,” as I tapped my fork on my glass. I would be a little nervous because for the first time I would see how many of you there actually are.
Here is what I would say:
Many of us have traveled a long way to be here tonight. Some of our journeys were of the geographic sort, but others were journeys of the heart and the soul and the spirit. Some of our journeys are so personal that we never speak of them. Sometimes you have to travel a long way to find food and family. I know something about this kind of journey.
My mother and father are both from deep East Texas, from the little town of Livingston. They were the first in their families to go to college. They took their two boys far away to El Paso, and that is where we lived for a time. But once or twice a year, when the days were accomplished that we should be delivered, we packed our car and made the journey across the state to Livingston. We traveled east on the road and backwards in time. It was a long journey, and we were going home.
My brother and I were small boys. We fought and fidgeted our way across Texas. If I close my eyes, I can conjure up a jumble of images. Small gas stations; drinking grape soda in the sun while my father stretched his legs; spotting the glowing eyes of white-tailed deer at night; singing little made-up songs with my brother when the pine trees that marked East Texas appeared outside the windows.
Livingston seemed forever lost in a bygone era. My parents would settle back into the routine of being children and siblings. Old ways were remembered, and everyone grabbed their partners and moved in the familiar rhythms of our family’s dance.
I felt at home there, though I had never lived in Livingston. But I knew that our people were Livingston people, East Texas people, country people. The family welcomed these two confused city boys with open arms, even as they shook their heads in amazement at our tender, white feet and strange fear of fresh vegetables.
The weather was different; the smells were different; the accents and attitudes were different. But nothing was as new and unfamiliar as the food. In El Paso my mother bought our food at the grocery store. In Livingston my grandfather had a garden big enough to require a small tractor. We ate the fish he caught, the fruit he grew, and the vegetables he pulled from the ground. The fresh vegetables were strange to us at first. But in time we got used to them, and then we came to love them. It was as if this food was made for my soul. Or maybe my soul was born at my grandmother’s table.
Cream Peas were my favorite. The women would shell them on the back porch while we children played and the adults talked into the night. My grandmother would cook Cream Peas with butter and a little bacon. How can I describe the taste of them? They are like the soft, light, and buttery young cousin of the harsher, Black-eyed Pea.
The food we ate in Livingston was earthy because it had only just come from the earth. You ate the fruit of labor and land, and there were a hundred stories and traditions behind the preparing and the consuming. Country cooking is rich and fat and flavorful. It nurtures working men and women. It grows children. It makes a home.
We never forget the food of our homeland. We long for it always. I have a black, cast-iron skillet at home, and I can make corn bread if I feel a need for it. I know how to make it so that the outside is crisp and dark, but the inside is soft. I keep my eyes open for roadside stands that might sell the very rare and hard to find Cream Peas. How I long for them. Perhaps I shall have some next year in Jerusalem, or maybe in Nacogdoches.
We lived far from East Texas, but it was still home for me. In Livingston you were loved, family was close, and the food nourished your body and your soul. I never lived in East Texas, but East Texas lives in me. I cannot escape it. I will never forget it. No matter where I go or what I do, I always remember the summer nights and the laughter of the women shelling peas. I remember my people. I remember who I am and who I long to be.
So many of us have lost our sense of home over the years. Others never had a home to speak of. And that is why I say that we have journeyed long and far to be here together tonight. For those of us who are Christians, the bread and wine are symbols of something old and rich and meaningful. The bread nourishes more than our bodies, and the wine loosens more than our tongues. This meal is a celebration of the redemption we have always hoped for, always sought, and desperately needed to find. We consider ourselves to be a family in this faith.
Those of you who are not a part of our spiritual tradition are nonetheless welcome at these tables. The bread is freshly baked. The wine is rich and heady. As you share in this meal that means so much to us, perhaps you will tell us of your own journey to find meaning and to find your place in the world.
Laugh and talk and drink and be loved. Feel at home here, for the food is good and you are among friends. Eat as much as you want. Stay as long as you like. I’ll turn out the lights when everyone is gone.
Then I would step down and you would not hear from me again, nor would you be able to find me. If you looked for me at the microphone stand, all you would find is a hat and a denim clerical shirt folded neatly and laid over the back of a chair. I would be gone, lost among the tables, just one of the children, just another son in this human family.
The laughing and the noise would go on into the wee hours of the morning. Slowly people would leave their new friendships and make their way to the doors. All would be comforted to have found that kindred hearts are all around us. How sad it is that we haven’t taken the time to get to know each other.
Then, when no one was left and all you could hear were the crickets, one small man would turn out the lights, lock the door, and walk alone into the parking lot. He would turn his face toward his beloved stars, wipe the tears from his eyes, and say, “We did this; and we remembered You.”