For the Urbana 12 Worship Team, food is very important. This is true theologically as we use the dinner table as a metaphor to discuss worship culture, but it’s also true practically as we get to know each other and celebrate different cultures over our meals.
Several weekends ago the entire team met in Madison, Wisconsin, to prepare for Urbana. We called it a “practice,” as the clearest purpose of our weekend was to further develop the music we’ll be playing at Urbana. My ringing ears and nearly blistered fingers attested to the fact that many songs were, in fact, practiced. But over the past year I’ve learned that our times together are seldom just about music, and this gathering was no exception.
An Antidote to Toe-Stepping
Our team comes from all over the continent and from various cultures and ethnicities, so “normal food” means something very different to each of us. When we sit down to eat together, at least one of us is usually trying something for the first time. And often, it’s not just the food that’s new; it’s also the attitudes and behaviors of each of the members of the dinner party.
As a member of the majority culture in our country, I have the unique experience of walking through life expecting that everyone sees everything the same way I do. This is a blessing (life is a lot easier if you already know what everyone else is thinking, and they all think like you) and a curse (life is a lot harder when it turns out people don’t think the way you think they do—and you’re also a lot more likely to step on others’ toes).
Did you know that many families consider it rude to take the last piece of food on the serving plate? Or that many people would never answer a question if an elder was also addressed (out of deference to the elder)? That some cultures greatly value individuality and others decry it? That some cultures are more likely to always be the ones to speak up if someone asks, “How are you doing?” or “How did that go?” or really any question? That pursing your lips and nodding your head in a sharp upward fashion means “hello” in some cultures and “hel-LO!” (if you catch my drift) in other cultures?
As we sat down to several meals during that weekend in Madison—the Indian buffet, the order from the Great Dane that was missing several folks’ food, the Chinese takeout—I learned some of these diverse cultural rules. I remembered others. I violated some. I stepped on toes, and remembered ways I should act to avoid stepping on even more toes.
Laying It All on the Table
What was most remarkable about the meals is that those were the times when we each felt most comfortable to be different and to discuss our differences. Somehow the various cultural dynamics and even the little battles that had taken place during practices and planning meetings could come out in discussion over our meals. As each of us came to the table we were simultaneously reminded of how different we all are—do you prefer the Chicken and Broccoli or the Tofu, Eggplant, and Bok Choy? Do you eat the fried chicken or the gluten-free biscuits?—and also how familiar and welcomed we could feel.
There is something about sitting down to a meal together that makes it natural to share about our cultures with each other. I sure wasn’t going to pipe up in practice and say, “My family culture values a particular type of time management and structure and I’m not getting it right now, so I’m very frustrated!” But over our meals, I felt the freedom to discuss both my family’s eating habits and also how I was handling the tenser elements of our time together.
Our meals together haven’t instantly rid me of my tendency to assume everyone thinks the same way I do. In fact, years and years of cross-cultural friendships still haven’t had that effect. But each time I sit down to a table where everyone’s differences are so clear and yet each person is so comfortable with themselves, that tendency becomes a little less entrenched within me. I’m reminded that each of us comes to the table with a different set of experiences, values, and thoughts, and knowing that up front will free us to understand and celebrate each other’s differences.
Matt Stauffer is a husband, new father, bassist, and web developer. He lives in Chicago, Illinois, works for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and will be playing bass on the Urbana 12 Worship Team.
Urbana 12 and ACT:S are challenging you to share an intentional meal with someone who lives differently than you, to learn what you have in common and what you can learn from each other. On Wednesdays in November and December, we’ll be posting stories from InterVarsity staff and alumni about intentional meals they’ve shared with others—and all the good that comes from it.