Sharing a meal together is a deeply relational practice. It can be an intimate event, with even a sacramental quality. Breaking bread together is an act of communion, a celebration of our one-ness. It is the most beautiful of affirmations that we are first of all, relational beings. Growing up in Eritrea, East Africa, I experienced the intimacy of eating from a shared dish. The round platter of spicy, delicious meats and vegetables is enjoyed by young and old, gathered close together. It is scooped up with injera—a soft, flat bread made from teff flour and other grains. It is a leisurely, un-rushed process. It is a celebratory act. This is a time for sharing stories, experiencing the richness of the life we have together, and appreciating the abundance of flavors and textures that we are dipping into together.
If you come as a stranger, to a group of Eritreans sharing a meal, you will, without a doubt, be invited in to this feast. There is always room for one more person. There is always room for the stranger. Eritreans are not the only community that shares food in this way. Much of the world does. I remember passing through an airport on the west coast of the United States. Close to the baggage claim area, where I was waiting to retrieve my bag, a small circle of men from Somalia were clustered around a large bowl, dipping chunks of bread together, into a rich stew. It took only my passing greeting to them, to garner me an invitation to join their circle. For a moment, the hurried life of North America stopped. I became immersed in a community of men, sharing together and welcoming me, as a stranger passing by.
I have come to see meeting processes and decision making in this light of a banquet, shared from a common dish. Decision making is first, about relationships, and not about agendas. If we are attentive to the relationships, the agendas will take care of themselves! Perhaps, here is a place where the Western world, has something to learn from Africa. On my way to giving a presentation at a Taos Institute conference on conflict transformation in San Diego, I caught a shuttle bus to the airport in Seattle, Washington. The driver was an immigrant from a region of Ethiopia. In the short ride to the airport, we found a place of deep conversation about differences between living in Africa and living in the United States. Stepping down from the shuttle bus, I set my suitcase down to thank him for the ride. As we parted, I asked: “What do you think North America has to learn from African culture?” He paused for only a minute, and then said quietly: “We eat from the same dish.”
As I pursued my PhD dissertation with the Taos Institute through Tilburg University in the Netherlands, I reflected much on this metaphor as I wrestled with understanding the spatiality of decision making from a relational constructionist frame. Dr. Harlene Anderson, one of the founders of the Taos Institute, describes therapists (and facilitators) as invited ‘guests’ to a process. I found the notion of welcoming the stranger to a rich banquet of ideas, as a rich way of describing decision making as a relational process. When we welcome the stranger, we welcome in new ideas and perspectives. When we view decision making processes as a rich banquet feast, we move out of limiting, problem-solving models, which become about dividing up a limited fare and identifying winners and losers.
Might decision making processes in community groups, universities, agencies, churches, mosques, and synagogues, be enriched with this notion of a banquet feast? This is the place where we can invite in new voices, we can share stories, and we can listen to the stranger who is our guest. This is a generative place, where everyone feels full and satisfied. I have never seen anyone leave a shared plate at an African Family Dinner, leave hungry. There is always enough! Might eating from a shared dish be a profound step toward peacemaking? It is surely a rich celebration of the sacred potential of relational being.