On any given Wednesday night in downtown Casper, Wyoming, a group of once-strangers gathers for a shared meal in a small retail shopping center. A storefront space on the upper level has been transformed into a venue resembling a living room. Through large windows, one can glimpse comfortable couches, see local art hanging on the walls and hear music setting the ambiance. A simple wooden table near the front of the room holds the symbols of Christian communion: a plate, pitcher and chalice made from rough-hewn pottery.
The circular logo in the door welcomes you to “The Table: Doubters + disciples together.” Stickers in the window proclaim messages like “Move equality forward” and “Refugees and immigrants welcome here.” Pieces of art inside the venue declare similar sentiments: an illustration of a safety-pin is adorned with the words “All welcome here,” and a framed graphic next to the tea and coffee station reads, “All you need is love and a cup of coffee.”
Following the shared meal, the group of new friends gather in a circle to reflect and dialogue on four shared practices: listening, compassion, action and hospitality. These practices set the tone for the mission of The Table, one of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 1001 New Worshipping Communities.
The Table is a community of doubters and disciples together. This automatically means welcoming the other – the one who believes differently than we do, the one who sees the world through different lenses. We consider doubters to be askers of critical questions and disciples to be followers of good teachers. Our primary teacher at The Table is Jesus, through the story of God’s love found in the Christian tradition. But we also have much to learn from wisdom traditions other than our own. We have a hunch that there is a little bit of doubter and disciple within each of us. And because of this, we gather to practice hospitality to include one another, to look each other in the eye over shared food and hot beverages, to hear each other’s stories and to listen to the ways we’ve each been shaped to view the world.
When Tracy first walked through the glass retail doors into The Table, she recognized a place of religious inclusion unlike any she had experienced. The month after the Orlando Pulse Night Club shootings last year, The Table hosted a “Pride Reflections Dialogue” for the LGBTQ community in Casper. Tracy helped organize the event. The purpose was give the safety of community to those identifying as LGBTQ in Wyoming as they processed the grief and fear felt after the shooting.
When bullying and physical attacks increased on minority groups of all kinds across the country after the national elections in 2016, Tracy called me to inquire, “Who is next? Who needs protection and a safety zone next? When I think of taking action in this community, I call The Table.” Tracy’s questions prompted The Table to invite a Muslim imam from the neighboring town Gillette, Wyoming, for a “Love Thy Muslim Neighbor” evening of interfaith dialogue. So much energy was sparked that night that The Table devoted the entire month of February to asking critical questions around the practice of hospitality as we learn to love God with all our hearts, souls and minds and love our neighbors as ourselves.
In March, The Table offered a new project called “Compassion School,” where the basic skillsets required to navigate difficult conversations were taught and practiced. The work of listening to, hearing and truly understanding each other’s stories begins with compassion. The Table helps facilitate this kind of compassion with workshop-style engagement meant to create the inter-social communication and capital that builds relationship.
The Table regularly hosts local artists in partnership with the Casper Art Walk. It also offers its space to other groups in need of a gathering place, including a writing group, an immigration alliance, midwives and many others. It is both a hub and instigator of sewing shalom across Casper. Following the imagery of Jeremiah 29:1-7, The Table recognizes its welfare is directly tied to the welfare of Casper, and beyond.
Diana Butler Bass, historian and author, said in an interview that, at its roots, hospitality is salvation. God welcomes the stranger. We have all been strangers because of selfishness and independence and ignorance. But God has set a new table that welcomes all back to belonging. When we deserved to be far off, God brought us in: those who were strangers are now friends. That’s it. That is salvation in a nutshell. Now, we turn around and offer this same salvation-as-hospitality to the world by offering a radically open table and inviting the stranger to come and eat with us.
Libby Tedder Hugus is pastor of The Table in Casper, Wyoming, a community of doubters and disciples together. She lives on the wild-windy-western frontier with her hilarious husband Jeremy and will go to endless lengths to share a delicious cup of tea or coffee with friends. She is co-author of “Marks of the Missional Church: Ecclesial Practices for the Sake of the World.”