A Seat at the Table
An Inspirational Interfaith Experience
by Timothy Sullivan, CSP
September 27, 2017

We are living in turbulent times where the “e pluribus unum” on the statue of liberty seems to be deteriorating in our American society. We are in dire need to solidify the values on which our country was built. But we are not without concrete, grassroots ways of doing so. 

On Thursday, August 24, 2017, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Knoxville, Tennessee hosted A Seat at the Table evening which brings together people of differing faiths and ethnic backgrounds for a dinner followed by an opportunity for heartfelt sharing and dialogue.

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One goal of A Seat at the Table is to better acquaint ourselves with one another, and to put aside possible pre-conceived opinions and prejudices towards another’s beliefs and faith. A Seat at the Table provides participants with a valuable opportunity to better appreciate and understand the life experience of their neighbors, and to hopefully build bridges to help improve future dialogue and friendships so that peoples of all faiths can live in harmony and work together to help create a society that embraces diversity, acceptance, cooperation and respect. 

Trained facilitators help to guide the participants to share deeply about their own experiences of living out their faith.  The first question offered by the facilitator is usually  “What in your faith tradition inspires you?” 

Another question might be “What were your hopes and fears about coming this evening ?”  The questions invite those present to share their story, rather than proving a point validating their faith tradition.  It is hoped that the time spent will be fruitful, and that the participants are encouraged to truly learn from each other, and to begin to better understand the richness and variety of the faith traditions of those seated around the table.  Another goal is to encourage participants to discuss and envision how they can work together to help build a society that acknowledges and appreciates the richness and beauty of varying faith traditions and customs. 

More Than Just Good Food

Our A Seat at the Table evening began with a delicious vegetarian meal prepared and served by the hospitality committee of the church. The food served was suitable for the various dietary restrictions of the participants.  There was a wonderful sharing and exchange over dinner as people got to know each other for the first time.  

After dinner, we gathered in two groups of twelve person each, and began our discussion.  Each person was invited to share highlights of their faith experience and to share any recent history of encountering people of faiths different from their own.   The sharing was heartfelt, personal, and very inspiring.  Occasionally tears flowed and deep emotions often surfaced.  Several participants communicated the importance and influence of ecumenical and interfaith experiences in their lives.  

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Each member of the groups had about seven minutes to share their story.  We all listened with intense interest, respect, and appreciation.  After an hour and a half in the group setting, we reconvened as a whole and briefly shared our thoughts on the experience.  Everyone agreed that it was a profound and eye opening experience. We then took a group photo and afterwards, we gladly exchanged phone numbers and email addresses with the hope that we would stay in touch.  There were smiles and hugs before we left to go home.

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The timing of our A Seat at the Table on August 24. 2017 took place about a week after the tumultuous events in Charlottesville, Virginia when clashes occurred between white supremacist groups, neo- Nazis, KKK members and those opposing these ideologies and beliefs.  The dark cloud of that event hung over our sharing in the groups.  

Personal Witnessing

I had the opportunity to interview some of the participants in the days following our evening together.  Emma, an Evangelical Christian, when asked why she had wanted to attend the A Seat at the Table experience, stated: “ Our world needs more positive messages and role modeling of kindness, acceptance, and hope which needs to be stronger than the message of fear and hatred”. 

Hanan, a Muslim woman raised in Palestine as a child, and a leader in the local Knoxville Muslim Community organization, stated that she sometimes experiences blatant  prejudice and disrespect in Knoxville because of her faith.  She said “I think most people react to me and to other Muslims based on fear and a lack of understanding of our faith. They don’t understand or appreciate the beauty of the Muslim faith, our strong morals and religious traditions.   Many people see Muslims as a symbol of terrorism.  That really hurts.”  

Abdallah, a Muslim from Morocco who teaches Arabic as part of a one year educational exchange program in Knoxville, stated “This was a marvelous and eye-opening experience.  People came together this evening who had never met and probably had mistaken and muddled ideas about each other.  We had the pleasure of sharing a meal and sharing in meaningful conversation.  Yes, we started as strangers, but we are leaving as friends tonight.”

Harrison, a sixteen-year-old and a member of the Mormons, shared that he has committed his life to promoting inter-faith understanding and cooperation based on an earlier experience of A Seat at the Table.  He is developing workshops for teens and young adults to understand and appreciate people with differing faiths.  Harrison noted that “Getting to know each other at events like this helps us to reduce our human tendency to judge others and to be prejudiced out of fear.  There is nothing more important in our world today, in my opinion, than the need to learn about our differences and to strive to truly appreciate the value and opportunity we all have to be enriched and blessed by people of different faiths.”  

Jason, a life-time Catholic, said “I am so glad I came tonight.  I have gotten to know some amazing people.The setting helped me be very comfortable to share my story and to truly listen as others shared their stories.  I will carry cherished memories of this evening in my heart.  A Seat at the Table can help create a network of individuals and families who otherwise would never have met.  As human beings, we tend to live in silos, isolated from one another.  Tonight helped me to realize that I need to end my own tendency to be isolated and disinterested.”  

An elderly Jewish woman reflected that she had renewed hope in humanity because of her experience that evening.  She shared with me that “After this experience, I feel empowered and inspired to explore the potential  points of contact between Jewish, Muslim, and Christian segments in our city.  We can and we must work together to improve our neighborhoods and to become more aware of the giftedness and talents of our neighbors of differing faiths.  We need to harness the positive energy I experienced tonight, and make positive changes in our city and in our world”.

In conclusion, I was deeply moved and inspired by my experience at A Seat at the Table, and I am very grateful to all who participated that evening.  I plan to become more involved in this important interfaith effort in the months and years ahead.    

For more information concerning A Seat at the Table, please contact Emily Baird-Chrisohon at emily@rfpusa.org.  

Father Tim Sullivan, CSP, is a Catholic priest and a member of the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle, better known as the Paulist Fathers.He currently serves as the Associate Pastor at Immaculate Conception church in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee.  He can be contacted at tsullivancsp@gmail.com