Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated. —Martin Luther King Jr.
It was a cloudless afternoon in July 2018 when the first Common Table event was set up on the playing field of Montecito Union School. In the days prior, the indomitable Alison Hardey had hung a somewhat cryptic banner over the front door to Jeannine’s on Coast Village Road announcing, “a community gathering — Our Common Table: pot-luck food, live music, one long table, Thursday, July 26th, 5:30-7:30.” A small team of volunteers had circulated slightly more descriptive flyers around businesses, schools, and churches of a community still reeling in the aftermath of January’s debris flow: “an outdoor gathering of neighbors sharing a meal at one continuous table in the heart of Montecito. No program. No politics. No speeches. Just food (pot-luck), music, and fellowship.”
This was in the days before the plague of COVID-19 necessarily kept us apart.
With no practical means to RSVP and only vague reports of potential participant interest, at 5:30 p.m., the long table was set. And at 5:31, there were a total of 18 people in attendance — each an event volunteer. I scanned the school parking lot with a sinking feeling before noticing a car pull in, followed by another and another. Soon people began flowing in from all directions, across the field to the table, carrying an assortment of food in serving dishes and bowls. The long table began to fill up. A shiny red Montecito Fire Department engine pulled into the driveway. The uniformed crew emerged and strode to the table, transporting a mound of freshly barbecued pulled-pork. Event volunteer Pat McElroy and I scrambled to add another 8-foot table section to the end, and another, and another. By 6 p.m., over 400 folks were sharing one table, breaking bread together.
A few months later, Common Table reappeared on the closed-off 1200 block of State Street. The long table straddled the center divider. And once again, roughly 500 folks from all corners of our community showed up to break bread together. At the table were a number of Santa Barbara City Firefighters, Sheriff Bill Brown, Police Chief Lori Luhnow and several SBPD officers, folks representing the Santa Barbara Young Black Professionals, several members of Santa Barbara City Council, Bernie supporters, Trump supporters, SBCC students, clergy and church congregants, Samarkand retirement community residents, representatives of neighborhood organizations, people of opulent means, people who sleep on the streets, and John Palminteri reporting live on KEYT. All attendees were encouraged in advance to purchase their food-to-go from nearby restaurants and establishments to bring to the table. Feedback from the participating businesses was enthusiastically positive. Mollie Ahlstrand, of Mollie’s, reported that it was the best day of business at her restaurant’s State St. location up to that point.
Also in attendance on State Street were several Carpinteria city officials, who approached us with interest in seeing a Common Table event on Linden Avenue. Similar interest was expressed by representatives of Eastside neighborhood organizations and leaders in the Isla Vista community. By October 2019, a total of seven Common Table events had taken place between Carpinteria and Isla Vista, including Common Table Eastside and Common Table on The Mesa. Each event was the result of interest and outreach on the part of residents in the particular area. The culminating event was “Common Table — The Art of Community” on the 500 block of State Street, which featured live performances and presentations from 10 culturally diverse music acts, poets, and dancers, and was attended by over 1000 folks. By then, the City of Santa Barbara had become a partner with Common Table, managing the street closures.
So what is it that attracts people from all walks of life to share a long table and food with strangers?
The answer, quite simply, is that it is where we belong.
We are social, interdependent creatures. But we are living in increasingly independent lives. The paradox is that while we are more connected technologically than ever, our reliance on social technology rather than face-to-face interaction has increased our sense of isolation and loneliness. It has also contributed to an era of chronic opposition and divisiveness, and an inability to see each other as people with much more in common than we are often led to believe.
Reverend Greg Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the world’s largest gang-intervention and rehabilitation program. He puts it this way, “Human beings can’t demonize people they know. … What we all want to create and form is a community of kinship. If kinship was our goal, we would no longer be promoting justice, we would be celebrating it. For no kinship, no justice; no kinship, no peace.”
Mother Teresa put it in more elementary terms: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
We come to the Common Table to realize our fundamental connectedness and belongingness, while sampling each other’s guacamole. Sitting down for a meal together is one of the most essential ways to bridge divisions, build community, and deepen understanding among people of diverse backgrounds.
Maybe we don’t come to the Common Table in hopes of resolving the great polarizing issues of our time. But what chance do we have of genuine progress in such efforts if we have forgotten how to talk with each other? So perhaps our path to resolving that which divides us begins with sitting down at a table together and celebrating all that still unites us. As simple and naive as that appears, it just may be a critical first step.
And when it is safe again to gather, I will look forward to seeing you at the table.
Todd Capps is executive director of Common Table Foundation.