“Is it possible to major in love? Because that’s what I really want – I don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life, but I just want to love people.“
I watched as they walked up the driveway to the backyard where the table was set. There were more than 40 people. A few came in groups, but most were alone, drawn to this most unusual dinner party by a common passion to be bold in their dreams and to encourage others to do the same.
Facebook profiles became flesh and bone before my eyes, and hugs spoke volumes. Prior to this January evening, I had only spent time with 12 of the guests, save for comments on posts and tweets. But in this place, there were no strangers.
It felt like a sweet reunion.
We gathered around the Neighbor’s Table. There was a place for everyone at the hand-hewn picnic tables. Delicious food was served family-style, and a local musician filled the night sky with melody as he played under the lights of a carport-turned-amphitheater.
Laughter blended with the songs to create a heartfelt symphony as conversations lingered long after the last plate was passed. New friends snapped photos and exchanged phone numbers and dreamt of the next time they would be sitting together over a good meal.
And no one wanted the evening to end. Especially Sarah Harmeyer – the woman at the heart of it all.
If you were to ask Sarah what she wanted to do with her life as a child, serving meals in her backyard wouldn’t have been on the list. Perhaps “world traveler” would have been her goal instead. A shy girl growing up in a big city, she was always fascinated by culture. Her freshman year of high school proved transformational, as she “fell head over heels in love with Jesus. I still use the same bible I received on Valentine’s Day that year – it’s so full of my life now.” While other students spent their summer at the beach, Sarah spent three months serving in Tanzania. She pondered her future, wondering what life might be like for a girl who found her greatest joy encouraging others.
She remembers sitting with her advisor at Ouachita Baptist University, trying to decide where she would focus her studies. There wasn’t a Bachelors program for love, so they determined a degree in education would work. She graduated with honors and went on to receive her Masters. She then returned to 2nd Baptist School in Houston – her alma mater – to teach motor skills to the youngest of students there.
Teaching was beautiful and Sarah did it well. But a passion ignited in her heart while in college was beckoning – something far removed from lesson plans and gold stars. And after she left teaching to lead St Jude’s Research Hospital’s fundraising efforts in Dallas, the fire grew stronger.
You see, while at Ouachita Baptist, she and a friend opened a tiny “café” on their porch. While she never fancied herself an expert cook, Sarah loved what happened around a dining table. “We’d come up with our little menu and record it on our answering machine. People would call and make reservations for lunch. It may not have been totally legal, but it was so much fun.” The Red Porch’s reservation list was always full.
In 2011, Sarah chose a theme word: identity. She had selected special words for years – and ‘identity’ defined what she desired: to take time to really discover her purpose, her calling. She poured herself into her well-worn Bible and spent time with trusted friends and mentors. “I learned that year that I had the gift of evangelism. I always knew I had a passion for meeting people – getting to know their stories. All people, the more diverse the better. A friend asked me what I loved to do, and I said ‘gather ‘round the table.’ He looked at me and said, ‘and that’s where you evangelize.’”
Sarah’s dad Leroy built two sturdy cedar picnic tables for her backyard, and Neighbor’s Table was born. In 2012, with “community” as her theme word, she hoped to feed 500 people at her table. By the end of 2013, more than 1000 people had gathered for good food and conversation. There have been dinner parties and picnics, neighborhood block parties and surprise birthdays, sandwiches and steaks and soup. And on Sundays when the weather is nice, she has what she calls “Open Table,” a potluck gathering for her neighbors. “Everyone brings a dish and we catch up on life. I only knew two neighbors when this journey began. Now every single person on my street has eaten at my table. I know their names, their stories.”
The most beautiful thing about Neighbor’s Table is that, while the food is delightful, it’s really not about the meal at all. It’s about something far more important, and you can feel Sarah’s calling – that passion that has burned so brightly for years – when she speaks about it. “It’s not about a fancy table, and it’s not about fancy food. It’s about love and people and being together.” The night of our gathering, before the 42 people from a Facebook community called Dreamers & Builders traveled by plane and by car to gather in Sarah’s backyard, Leroy built more tables to make sure everyone had a seat, and she prayed over every single place setting. Every single one. I think that’s why our evening felt so inspired, so perfect – because it was so blessed.
In the wee hours of the morning, as I settled into the guest room Sarah graciously offered, precious words awaited me from this new friend who felt like such a good friend.
Yes, Sarah Harmeyer. Love. Always love. You have majored in it. Mastered it. And this girl’s life has been beautifully touched because of it. I pray to sit at your Neighbor’s Table again. And next time, I’ll bring new friends for you to meet. It will be a sweet reunion.
Thanks to Jim Shields for the really great photos in this post. The shot of Sarah and the picture of my sweet note are from yours truly - and it shows (sorry Sarah)!
You know from my posts how much I enjoy a good meal and conversation with friends and family. Now, what about you? When you think of community, what comes to mind?
Sarah’s friend, Shauna Niequist, shares more about the table that is transforming community – enjoy her words here.
And you can fall in love with Sarah’s stories – and purchase a Neighbor’s Table for your backyard – by visiting her Facebook page. Her website is coming soon. She also Tweets and shares great moments on Instagram.