Over the last thirty years I had the opportunity of facilitating renewal programs and provincial chapters of over two hundred different congregations and dioceses across the country. At the end of these renewal programs every group makes action plans with radical proposals with flowery language. Terminologies like ‘responding to the prophetic call’, ‘inclusive community’,’ pluralistic vision, empowerment of women, contextualized formation, option for the poor and the marginalized are found in almost all documents. Yet when time comes for application and implementation of these proposals there will be hundreds of excuses and exceptions.
Whenever I suggested to the groups to include the kitchen staff and other co-workers to the common meals in the dining hall it was turned down with hundreds of excuses such as, ‘they will not like to be with us’, ‘they feel shy’, ‘even if we ask them they do not want to come’, ‘on special occasions they join us’ etc.. Some justify saying, ‘eating together is not important. There are many other ways we can respect them’. It is a fact that people who are willing to accept new ideas find difficult to give up the old ideas and practices. Hence all radical action plans remain in paper only.
Jesus was severely criticised for his radical action of dining with the tax collectors and prostitutes. He was going against the existing traditions and laws by including those who were excluded and discriminated in the society. He justified his inclusive policy saying, “I have come to call the sinners for repentance”.
From time immemorial, table fellowship of sharing a meal was considered a sign of friendship and building relations. Close relatives, friends, members of various clubs and heads of governments build up relationship by sharing a meal. Jesus was making use of table fellowship for building deeper friendship with those discriminated and excluded in the society. Building up Inclusive community was a priority of Jesus.
From the last thirty years I had been experimenting to build inclusive community by sharing meals with the drivers, kitchen staff and workers. The practice which I had experimented in the missions while working in the diocese continued when I launched the Christo-centric community as part of Universal Solidarity Movement. The provincials, bishops, principals of schools and government officials who come to USM community are pleasantly surprised to see the commitment, responsibility and honesty of our domestic staff. “We treat them as partners. None of them feel that they are workers” is my response to their many questions. The driver, kitchen staff and housekeeping staff who wash the linen and clean the house share the meal together on the same table along with teaching faculty and VIP guests. Instead of challenging themselves and resolving to experiment the same in their communities most of the priests and nuns make an excuse, “it is possible for you here. In our communities it is not possible because we have people with different mentalities”. The religious communities have members who share the same charism and vision where as USM community consists of people of different faith, cultural background, priests and nuns who belong to different congregations. What makes seemingly impossible things possible in USM community is the constant evaluation based on the vision, “what would Jesus do if he were here?” It is a vision centred community and the vision and life are evaluated every day.
The best way to get the maximum commitment and responsibility of our workers and staff is to make them partners of our mission and include them as members of our community. When the workers and staff feel that they are members of the community they take charge of it with great responsibility and commitment. They will do their best without grumbling. They will be more loyal, honest and responsible.
Another important spiritual dimension which would help us to include the workers into our community and give them maximum honour is to think of the reasons why the workers stay with us to do the menial jobs. It is because of their helplessness out of poverty that the young girls and boys leave their families and come to distant places to do these menial jobs. As persons who practice the spirituality of Christ we should make these young girls and boys feel for our community as their home and all members as their dear and near ones. Why can’t the workers in our kitchen who prepare delicious food for the community day after day sit and eat with us in the same dining hall? Why can’t the driver who drives us safely share a cup of tea or meal with us on the same table? We need to question ourselves constantly, “If Jesus were here, what would he do.”
As a concrete action plan of the restructuring and renewal why don’t all religious communities and institutions open their dining halls for all the staff and workers to have the table fellowship as Jesus did? Bishops and provincials could show the way by opening the dining halls of their communities for all and share their table with every one irrespective of status and position. If Pope Francis could do it in Vatican what prevents bishops and provincials to follow his example?(Published on 26th November 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 48)