Reparation starts with relationship

At God’s table, trust-building paves the way for truth-telling

Central Plains Mennonite Conference delegates talk during the 2022 annual meeting in Freeman, S.D. — Ted Lewis Central Plains Mennonite Conference delegates talk during the 2022 annual meeting in Freeman, S.D. — Ted Lewis

“Only our faith will allow God to prepare the table in front of our enemies,” said Nigerian minister Sunday Adelaja. Can we imagine ourselves in this Psalm 23 scenario, with people whose views oppose ours?

In June 2022, Central Plains Conference of Mennonite Church USA chose the theme “Come to the Table” to remind us of God’s role in divisive times. At the annual gathering in Freeman, S.D., three conference ministers spoke on the biblical theme of meal tables as a place for reconciliation.

Amanda Bleichty highlighted the Last Supper, where Jesus washed the feet of his diverse disciples and shared bread and wine as a unifying practice.

Susan Janzen said the meal at Emmaus presented “uncertainty as a gift of grace.” This story invites Christians to be open to newness and thus to be less protective and less moralistic.

Nathan Luitjens tapped into the feeding of the multitudes, where so little is transformed into so much.

In each of these table narratives, Jesus follows a pattern: He gives thanks, he breaks bread, he offers food, he shares it. And it is always enough. As with the manna story, in God’s economy everyone is satisfied.

What does the sharing of food have to do with divisive issues in the church? For one, God’s table is big enough: All are invited to partake and eat. For another, eating represents our common humanity. Conservatives and liberals share the same digestive system.

But there’s more than a physical dimension. There’s a social dimension that expresses genuine coexistence.

In my work as a restorative justice facilitator, I often bring simple snack foods — crackers, cheese, grapes — to meetings, because food is a bridge between people. At the end of a meeting, eating joins with celebration. Isaac and Abimelech feasted together after they worked through a conflict over water rights (Genesis 26).

In some cases, a reparation agreement is an important part of a restorative process. After dialogue between harming and harmed parties, or between people who have clashed, both sides may set up a plan to make amends or improve trust. Words are demonstrated in actions.

I once facilitated a case involving a man who phoned in death threats to a mosque and Islamic center in Eugene, Ore. The Muslim couple representing their community preferred restorative dialogue to a court process. At the end of two long sessions, which included 20 people, a reparation agreement was drafted. Along with a public apology and other conditions, the responsible party agreed to attend two lectures on Islamic history.

In the biblical stories from the Central Plains sermons, those who encounter Jesus are not in control. And yet they receive. Their lack of control allows transformation to happen. Vulnerability leads to strengthening.

This paradox lies at the heart of restorative conversations. Whether we lean traditional or progressive, we ask ourselves: Can I show up at God’s table with holy vulnerability? Can I meet with someone I disagree with to hear their stories and explore ways of living together?

At this year’s Central Plains meeting in York, Neb., the table motif continued. A “dwelling in the Word” practice paired people up to read a passage from the Book of Acts and share their reflections. Then, in a large-group setting, each person shared their partner’s insights to highlight the significance of listening and reflecting back — two essential ingredients in healthy communication.

At times, my restorative work involves members of the same church. When people move out of their head-zones (where we defend ourselves with selective narratives) and into their heart-zones (where we open up with empathy for what others have experienced), transformation can happen.

Restorative dialogue moves from the past to the present to the future. Reparation comes from a dialogue about making things right in the future. But getting to that point requires authentic sharing and relationship-building.

If people jump too quickly to talk about reparation, there may not be enough “trust credit” to make up for a “trust debit.” Where mistrust lingers (for legitimate reasons), talk of reparation can be premature. It can lead to more harm if there isn’t authentic connection.

We hear a lot about the white dominant culture needing to make reparations for communities of color that have suffered greatly from historical harm. This is noble and important. But without a foundation of trust, reparative acts stem from guilt and duty rather than empathy and friendship.

People are increasingly afraid to have hard but healing conversations. The stakes seem too high. Everything they might say seems like a potential trigger of negative feelings.

Given this paralysis, church communities should be beacons of light, modeling conversations across divides with respect and dignity. This takes practice. It takes all the Christ-­virtues: humility, patience, gentleness, self-control.

The table at the 2023 Central Plains Mennonite Conference annual meeting at York, Neb., assembled from wood blocks congregations brought to the 2022 annual meeting in Freeman, S.D. — Ted Lewis
The table at the 2023 Central Plains Mennonite Conference annual meeting at York, Neb., assembled from wood blocks congregations brought to the 2022 annual meeting in Freeman, S.D. — Ted Lewis

At the Central Plains meeting in 2022, the table was more important than the mic. Tables with six or seven delegates were the primary place to share, listen and then give input to the larger group.

This process sustained the trust-truth balance. Ideally, processes that deal with harms or conflicts integrate trust-building with truth-telling. If truth-telling outpaces trust-building — as when those with the strongest opinions dominate open-mic times — anxiety and tension rise.

For people to have moments of transformation, they need to experience not only the dignity of sharing their own stories and views but also the gift of being heard well by people with oppositional views or experiences.

This is the way God reaches humanity and invites us to grow. Relationship precedes repentance. We turn from old ways because God meets us with unconditional love. This motivates reparative actions that strengthen coexistence.

Reparation and restoration can happen. But it all starts with relationship.

Again, the table: Here we meet each other, even our ideological enemies, with a love that does not demand change. We come to conversations vulnerably and authentically, strong in our identities, rooted in God’s acceptance.

Jesus joins us at the table. Jesus is made known at the table. Jesus presides at the table. We find our stories within his master story. Jesus died for us while we were yet enemies and led the way for us to eat in peace in the presence of our enemies.

Ted Lewis is a restorative justice facilitator and trainer in Duluth, Minn., and serves on the Conflict Management Support Team for Central Plains Mennonite Conference. He is the founder of the Restorative Church project.

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