It’s all in the timing

The Open Table’s new pastor, the Rev. Dr. Letiah Fraser, is among the guests Thursday on ‘Being Matthew 25’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Andrik Langfield via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Letiah Fraser picked a very good week indeed to begin ministry at The Open Table, a new worshiping community in Kansas City that’s “committed to each other’s liberation,” as The Open Table describes its mission.

By taking on this new ministry, Fraser, an ordained pastor with the Church of the Nazarene as well as a hospital chaplain, disability rights advocate, activist and organizer, got to appear alongside the organizer of The Open Table, Nick Pickrell, on this month’s broadcast of “Being Matthew 25,” hosted Thursday by Melody Smith, associate director for digital and marketing communications in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, the PMA’s president and executive director. Watch their half-hour conversation here or here. The Vimeo link is here.

The Open Table will proceed for a time with shared leadership, Fraser said, and “continue to work on our racial identity and how that relates to our spirituality.” It’ll also continue to grapple with this question, Fraser said: “What does it mean to reconstruct a spirituality in ways that are healthy and life-giving without having to fear what was before?”

Both a new worshiping community and a Matthew 25 community, The Open Table’s main focus most recently has been “to build a multiracial church,” said Pickrell, who’s stepping away from leadership at The Open Door after Fraser, formerly a resident at the worshiping community, accepted the leadership position. The Open Table “takes into account the ways that racism continues to wreak havoc on communities of color and white folks. We try to address that head-on as a community,” Pickrell said, with, for example, its participation in the Poor People’s Campaign, an organization Fraser has also worked with.

“Our gatherings,” Pickrell said, gatherings that include serving a meal to the community, “are at the intersection of spirituality and social issues.”

“Thank you for bearing witness,” Moffett told the two leaders, “and for creating people who understand what God would have in terms of the issues that have plagued our world. Structural racism “dishonors God,” Moffett said, and systemic poverty “dishonors the human spirit.”

Noting that the PMA is focused on the word “evolve” during 2022 and is using Philippians 1:6 as a core Scripture, Moffett asked how, in addition to an evolving leadership model, The Open Table continues to evolve.

The Open Table started “as a community of hospitality and conversation,” Pickrell said. “It was an all-white group of people. A lot of us were at the beginning of our own journeys to waking up to our racial identity.” Many in the community “recognized that racism is a real thing and a barrier to human thriving.”

The Open Table began to hear more and more from BIPOC speakers. Now the guideline is to have more BIPOC speakers than white people speak during gatherings, Pickrell said.

“We have tried to become very relational and very flat in our leadership,” Pickrell said. “We needed a leadership structure to reflect the community we are serving … Now you’re seeing some of the fruition [in that approach]. We are about liberation and healing — specifically BIPOC folks and white folks by proxy.”

The Rev. Dr. Letiah Fraser

“The structure of The Open Table,” Fraser said, “lends itself to being a Matthew 25 community.”

It’s a community “seeking to be intercultural,” Moffett noted. What, she wondered, have been some of the community’s greatest challenges and joys?

“A challenge for me as a white dude is that sometimes I want things to move a lot quicker than they do,” Pickrell said. “If you build something multiracial, things have to move slowly, especially if you want to include all. You will encounter some differences of opinion,” especially from people who are looking for something more akin to a traditional Presbyterian church, he said.

During Pickrell’s sabbatical during the spring of 2021, “I chatted with folks doing multiracial and multicultural churches.” As it turned out, “we were all dealing with the same stuff, the same kinds of messiness that come with community. Conflict is good, not bad. It’s a way to grow. As white folks, we may want it to disappear, but [that] keeps oppressive structures in place.”

A joy of the ministry has been doing “racial identity work as a deeply spiritual act,” Pickrell said. “It’s the same with folks waking up to their gender identity. We can shed stories and ways that society says people have to exist in order to get their needs met … It’s been wonderful to see myths fall away as we see ourselves clearly or in a new way. It’s been so transformative, and it’s been one of my greatest joys.”

Pickrell worked with Kansas City’s Catholic Worker Movement for five years before answering an advertisement at Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City to begin what would become The Open Table.

Nick Pickrell

“I took the job because I knew I wouldn’t be bored,” Pickrell said. “Then it got going and holy smokes, I don’t know if I would be going to church without The Open Table, because the community means that much to me.”

Fraser sensed a call to ministry while still in college. “It was really clear ministry would not consist of a traditional church,” Fraser said. “I came to The Open Table as a resident, and after two days, I felt like this was the way to live out the gospel, and this is where I found myself.”

Near the end of the broadcast, Smith shared one especially meaningful comment a viewer made as Fraser and Pickrell were speaking: “Food and breaking bread together is such a wonderful way to build communities of understanding,” the viewer wrote. “My earliest mission work as a teen taught me that as a white kid in an all-Black community. That shaped me for my entire life and I am nearing 70 and worked in multicultural/multiracial populations my entire career. It all started with sharing those meals. God is good!”

Moffett called that viewer comment and what she’d learned about The Open Table “so paramount to what Jesus demonstrated for us so we could develop the kind of community that understands and honors the humanity of all of God’s people.”

The next edition of “Being Matthew 25” is scheduled for 1 p.m. Eastern Time on Aug. 18. It’ll be available on the PC(USA) Facebook page and the denomination’s YouTube channel.

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