September 28, 2008

My lunch special at Atlanta’s Mediterranean Grille

David and Luther hugging gladdens Helen

Because I just missed the bus to reach a meticulously planned lunch date, I broke my rule on not hitchhiking and flagged a shiny black pickup truck. My designated driver? A thirty-something Hispanic man, dad to a preschooler (which I surmised from the Little Mermaid sticker smiling from the dashboard).

Me:  “How far up Briarcliff Road are you going?”
He:  “Buford Highway, to pick up my three-year-old daughter from school.”

When papi learned that I was headed past his turn, he insisted on first taking me to my destination so that I reach it on time. Good deeds. Grace. Gracias.

A long, growing friendship with interfaith roots
Atlanta's Mediterranean Grille was the venue for the basic recipe: good friends reconnecting over lunch to share laughter, ideas, updates, and more questions than answers. Luther called it "table fellowship" (a religious meal tradition derived from the ancient Mediterranean Essenes and early Christian cultures of community in which worship and ordinary daily living were integrated).

David's family and I met Rev. Dr. Luther E. Smith Jr. and his wife, Rev. Helen Pearson Smith, nearly a decade ago when our faith communities met at Central Congregational United Church of Christ. In dialogs, short courses (for instance, on theologians Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Howard Thurman), potluck dinners, and co-planned and -led New Year's and Thanksgiving services, we inched toward wider scopes, deeper visions, and more wholesome communities.

Meeting my cousin, my neighbor
At my turn in the long line to place orders, I asked the genial fellow Semite for lentil soup and dolmas (rice and lamb-stuffed grape leaves) with marinated salad.

I then pushed through my hesitation to ask, "What country are you from?" "Palestine," his answer.

Hmmm, methinks. Is he among the Israeli-Arabs and others for whom the State of Israel is a temporary aberration, its denizens slated to be obliterated, and the land appropriated to become Greater Palestine under Islamist rule? Or, does my cousin/my neighbor mean that he is from the Territories — the West Bank, Gaza, or one of the many Arab towns and villages, parts of a future Palestine?

"Where in Palestine?" I gently pressed.
"Gaza," he said.
Me (relieved, sort of): "Oh. Uh, I sometimes live in Tel Aviv."
He (enthusiastically): "I worked in Tel Aviv, in the 1970's."
Me: “Nice. In food?"
He: "No, I worked in the hotels."

And there ended our friendly chat; it was all I could manage. I had plenty to chew on, and mercifully, behind me someone was waiting to place a lunch order.

My community is multiracial, multicultural, multilingual, multi-everything
Such encounters — papi, David, the Smiths, and the Gazan remind me that suspending initial judgment of others and remaining open to the possibilities of engagement often returns interesting, rewarding outcomes.

Next month, our group will rejoin for table fellowship. I will probably re-order the dolmas, and speak a bit more w my Gazan cousin, if he is willing. And, because he worked in Tel Aviv, his Hebrew surely is a lot better than my Arabic.

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