Last week, while traveling for a speaking engagement in Brentwood, Tennessee, I had a remarkable experience that I would like to share. My flight from Tampa was very early, so when I arrived in Nashville I was ready for breakfast. A short distance from the Nashville airport there is a fantastic place to eat called Monnell’s at the Manor. It is one of several Monnell’s locations in town. Monnell’s offers classic southern cooking served family-style. That means that when you walk in, there are large tables that seat 12-16 people, and you may share your meal with several complete strangers. The food is brought out by the bowl and platter, and you just start passing everything around (to the left!) until everyone is served. The staff keeps bringing the food out as long as you want to keep eating. Needless to say, it’s one of my favorite places to eat!
By the time I got there, it was right at 9 am. Most of the morning breakfast customers had already finished and left, so I was taken to a table and seated by myself. But after a few minutes, a large group of black customers walked in and were seated at the table with me. Over the course of the meal, I learned that my breakfast companions were a father, wife, daughter, sister-in-law, and older family friend. They had come down from Clarksville to Nashville and knew where the food was good!
On paper, we did not have a lot in common at first glance. But when they began to eat, one of the ladies gave thanks. So at that point, I knew that we shared certain beliefs, and we could “speak the same language.” As we passed around the biscuits, peach preserves, fried chicken (a breakfast delicacy!), eggs, grits, country ham, and – well, I could keep going! – we began to learn more about each other.
Food is a great leveler. Although our backgrounds were very different in many ways, it was clear that we all grew up eating the same kind of cooking. What one culture may call “soul food,” I call “Granny’s cooking.” That’s why we were all at the same place, enjoying the same meal.
Fellowship around a table is significant in our culture, but in Jesus’ day, it was taken even more seriously. That’s why his deliberate choice to share meals with the outcasts of his society triggered such strong condemnation from the Pharisees:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)
And when Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius and his family, what really upset the traditionalists was that Peter “went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (Acts 11:3).
As we talked, one of my breakfast companions asked if I was from Nashville. I explained that I used to live in Nashville, but that I currently lived in the Tampa area and was in town for work. They asked me what I did, and I explained that I was a preacher. This immediately led to a series of questions about the Bible, usually prefaced by, “Hey, Preacher…” We had a blast!
At one point, the older gentleman asked me why race relations seemed to be getting worse rather than better. It is a testimony to the comfort level we all felt at that table that he would ask me for my thoughts about that topic. I prefaced my response by acknowledging to him that he had experienced things in his life that I would never really fully understand. After all, a few years before I was born, he would not have been permitted to eat in a public restaurant in Nashville.
But he asked, and I answered. I explained my views (that had recently been part of a sermon I preached here at home) that Christianity brought together people from many racial, ethnic, and social strata, and that as Christianity declines in our culture, people will default back to those superficial but powerful bonds of identity. I also suggested that some politicians in both parties have decided that it is to their advantage to keep people from these different demographics at odds with each other. and that many people have more in common than they think. I described what life was like for my grandparents, hillbillies from eastern Kentucky (and in case you don’t know, I use the term “hillbilly” with pride, not derision!) who lived at the edge of where the “white part” of town ended and the “black part” of town started. We joked that the color that matters most is green – money – and lots of people from my background and theirs didn’t have very much a generation ago.
As we were taking, it occurred to me that another ironic aspect of this conversation was that for many generations, black and white Christians did not worship together in the south. There were “black churches” and “white churches.” In some places, this is still the case. And while it is easy for me to criticize people who lived in a different time than my own, it is very difficult for me to understand how this kind of racial segregation is consistent with the gospel.
You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:9-11)
Where would race relations in the country be – especially in the south – if people who had so much in common had chosen to defy the prejudices of the world and share time together around the Lord’s table, where “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17)?
As we were finishing up our meal together, we came to two conclusions. First, the gospel is the only real solution to the problem of race relations. Second, America would be a nicer place if everyone had to eat at Monnell’s!
On the way out, one of the ladies at the table grabbed my ticket and paid for my meal. She just said for me to pass it on to someone else. And then, as we walked out together, she grabbed the older gentleman and insisted that we get a picture together. Here it is:
Thank you, Moody family from Clarksville, Tennessee, for one of the best meals of my life.