Life isn’t about hogging the last bread roll—it’s about sharing the table.
When I was around 12, we lived very near the zoo in Detroit, off Woodward Avenue. My dad had finished his work at an orphanage for boys. He had, I think, realized that while being a social worker for a small charity was fulfilling, it could not make sure that his six kids were able to have real milk on their oatmeal each morning instead of reconstituted powdered milk. He took a job running a well-funded religious school in a richer area of Detroit.
When I was a kid, segregation was even more pronounced in the Detroit area than it is today. My dad lived and saw segregation and its ill effects on society. He had grown up during the Depression on a few acres of dirt farm.
By the time I was 12 he had worked with the financially poor and the financially rich. He had, I think, seen it all. My dad was a sensitive guy. He cried in movies, had tears in his eyes when my sister and brothers were born.
My dad did not wish for us to grow up racist, tribal, intolerant, biased, or as bigots. My feminist mom agreed with that and made sure we had plenty of fodder to realize that women could do anything a man could. She did not want any of the Sutherland boys to grow up feeling superior in any way to any person on earth. We are all god’s children, and we are all here for a very important reason. No one is more important than somebody else.
One day, dad said we were going to have a visitor for dinner, so we needed to be on our best behavior.
I do not remember who answered the door. I do remember this tall, well-dressed man with the coolest British accent I had ever heard, sitting at “dad’s spot” at the table, telling us a story.
“I am from England.” My older brother and I leaned closer to hear him better. “I am a chef,” he continued. “I worked at some of the finest restaurants in England. I came to Detroit to get a job at the Detroit Country Club as the head chef.” After my dad explained what a country club was to us, and the chef finished telling us how cool it was to fly in an airplane, dad’s friend continued. “I talked to the country club to set up my interview. They loved my background. They loved that I was from England.” He smiled and said in a very British voice: “They loved my accent!”
Then his face went sad, and he looked at us and said, “I got to the gate of the club, and they called to the person who would be my boss. I had just chatted with him the night before and he was very excited to interview me.” He then looked a bit mad and said: “They did not want a black man preparing food for their guests.”
We don’t need to wait until Thanksgiving or Christmas to invite someone to share our table. Who will sit at your table? Who will you invite over?
He was not even given an in-person interview. He was not allowed in. My mom and dad, who had already heard this story, just let the man’s words sink into our impressionable little brains.
It was like my parents collected people to come share food at our humble table. War protesters, military people, feminists, people from varied religions and different races, people new to our neighborhood or who mom and dad had met at work.
Our food was never fancy. We had mismatched silverware and my siblings and I would eat from the regular dishes because when we had company we did not have enough wedding china for everyone. I now think about the humility of these acts by my parents. They were not invited over for my mom to show off. Her specialty was burnt pot roast, overcooked potatoes, jello, and kool-aid to drink. Our home and furnishings were not fancy.
Life was about relationships. It was about us being in a relationship with people who did not have the last name Sutherland. It was not about being in a relationship with those who behaved like us or believed as we did, who came from our church, or who could give us something materialistic.
Our guests were chosen because they could tell us stories about their lives, so we could connect with them over baking-soda biscuits dipped in lumpy pot roast gravy.
As parents we can make a difference. We all know deep in our souls that love wins. Many of us went to Christian Sunday school and learned that “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” and sang, “Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, love does not boast, it is not proud.” We usually stop there, but the Bible continues, “Love does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” As parents, are we doing the deeds? We must ask ourselves, are we teaching our children to love with our actions?
We don’t need to wait until Thanksgiving or Christmas to invite someone to share our table. Who will sit at your table? Who will you invite over? With COVID-19, maybe no one. But we can call. We can send a card. We can send some dried cherries, fudge, or maple syrup to people we barely know and say, “How ya’ doin’?”
We can include children in these random acts, and I know from experience that children will remember these actions. I still remember such sadness for that British man and the anger I felt towards the country club for its callousness and bigotry.
I vividly remember after one dinner I complained to my mom that the portions were small. It was after we had a family with five kids over for dinner for the third time in a week. Mom said, “Paul, they have no money. They have no heat in their home. We need to help them.”
I feel very grateful that I had real-life action heroes for parents. They stepped up and helped. They shared our table.