The Last Supper I had at Grace Place
David R. Weiss, October 2, 2010
In Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, Emily famously asks the Stage Manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” to which he responds, “No— Saints and poets maybe—they do some.”
Thursday night, I had a poet’s moment. An occasion when it seemed as if life itself slowed down so that I could actually see what was transpiring in front of me with a clarity that stunned me. Let me set the scene.
It’s Thursday evening in downtown Houston, the Montrose neighborhood. Each Thursday since this past June Grace Lutheran Church has hosted “Grace Place.” Described as a “safe, welcoming environment for vulnerable homeless youth of all sexualities and gender identities, providing nourishment, healthy relationships, and hope for the future,” the logo says it short and sweet: “Food. Friends. Hope.”
Different church groups come in with a warm meal. Someone else offers a creativity activity after supper. Then everyone gets turn in the Clothing Closet for basic needs from clean clothes to toiletries. And a chance for conversation. No worship. No pressure. Really, just food, friends, and hope.
Tonight I’m the “creative activity,” invited to offer a little workshop on my specialty, acrostic poetry. (It’s a poem form that carefully picks the first word of each line so that all of the initial letters running straight down the left edge of the page form a word or a phrase, thereby gives a voice to the margin of the poem. It seems like a neat gift to offer kids whose lives are lived, mostly unseen and unheard, in the margin day in and day out.)
Four long tables are set in a large square in the church basement, with seating for about twenty around the perimeter. Colorful plastic tablecloths, vases with carnations, and real plates, glasses, and silverware add a measure of warmth. The smells of home-cooked food complete the ambiance: a modest feast is ready.
The front door is propped open. Eventually the youth appear. Warily. Trickling in with apprehension barely muted by hunger. Churches have seldom befriended them—and hardly ever without a subtle (or screeching) tone of judgment. But here the welcome is real. And over the past four months, seeds of trust have been sown.
Hal, a flight attendant by day, greets each youth at the sign-in table as though they’re checking into first class. Leena, Rebecca, Barb, and Pastor Lura all move around the room welcoming and making small talk as the youth gather; this is no small kindness for kids who likely seldom receive the honor of eye contact much less a word of greeting.
In the kitchen, the folks from Christ the King Lutheran deliver the food family style to the table: lemonade, green salad, French bread, and the sort of casserole that Lutherans are famous for—not elegant, but wicked good.
There are twelve youth tonight; and one couple has a 16 month-old toddler with them. We assemble around the table, youth and staff interspersed, and the meal begins. Although several of the youth maintain a cautious posture, there is an undeniable spirit of conviviality around the table. Simple polite requests to pass the bread or the butter become redeeming gestures of civility. Several women from the kitchen come around to fill or refill glasses as attentively as waitresses in a fine restaurant. The casserole is devoured—but the same women from the kitchen keep the serving bowls brimful. Conversation and laughter make guest appearances. There is plenty of food. Plenty of hospitality. Plenty of … hope.
This is when it happens.
I look over at Lura. She is beautiful. Radiant. Her long hair frames her face in a way not unlike a halo. She surveys the tables, the youth feasting around her, with only a wisp of a smile betraying infinite joy. But her eyes are leaking love like you can’t imagine.
And suddenly time stops. In my mind’s eye, the five of us who are staff fade away. In an optical illusion the four tables unfold themselves into one long banquet table—and there they are: Lura and the Twelve. Like a Last Supper image as haunting as anything da Vinci ever managed. Except these twelve aren’t disciples, they’re just children, scared—and sacred. And there’s a rambunctious toddler, roaming at the edge of the picture like a mischievous cherub.
I’m not trying to make Lura out to be some Jesus figure. I’m sure she has her hands full just being Lura. But I am saying that in this moment her table became The Table. I saw Grace Place not as a location, not as a ministry. It is … this instant. This meal. And this meal is not the casserole and the salad. There is no wafer, no wine, in sight. But here, the very Body and Blood of Christ—these children!—daring to feast, to risk trust in a world all too intent on fashioning fear. Here, the Body and Blood of Christ become really present in, with, and under these children, consecrated in this holy moment, not by what Lura says, but by what she sees, looking around the room, her eyes leaking love all over the place. Grace Place, that is.
That’s my poet’s moment, when I managed to “realize life while I lived it,” as Emily put it. And, because I was there to teach poetry, of course, I tried to capture that moment and hold it in place long enough to give others a glimpse, too. (And, yes, it is an acrostic.)
Dinner at Grace Place
Lest anyone accuse me of hyperbole,
understand, I am talking about the
real presence of Christ, in, with,
and under the meal.
see, I saw her eyes, brimming with
love for each child gathered
around this table, and it
seemed to me that this was exactly
the moment in which one might
say, these children—off cast,
unwanted, unseen—these children,
precious beyond measure, are most
profoundly the body and blood of Christ,
embraced in her presiding gaze and made