Thursday Dinner, Hutchmoot ’22: Thom Kha

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Editor’s Note: This year’s return to an in-person Hutchmoot gathering also allowed our favorite chef/writer John Cal to bless us with his thoughtful essays before each evening meal. What follows is his Thursday night pre-meal address from Hutchmoot ’22.

Self: Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start.

(Spoken) When you read you begin with . . 

Response: A-B-C

Self: When you sing you begin with do-re-mi.

Response: Do-re-mi

Self: The first three notes just happen to be do-re-mi.

Response: Do-re-mi

Self: Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti….
Do, a dear, a female dear
Re, a drop of golden sun
Mi, a name I call myself
Fa, a long long way to run
So, a needle pulling thread
La, a note to follow so
Ti, a drink with jam and bread
And that will bring us back to do, oh, oh, oh

Everyone:
Do, a dear, a female dear
Re, a drop of golden sun
Mi, a name I call myself
Fa, a long long way to run
So, a needle pulling thread
La, a note to follow so
Ti, a drink with jam and bread
And that will bring us back to do, oh, oh, oh, do


We were friends. We were supposed to be friends, but the world around us changed. The rules were different. Our surroundings had shifted. It all happened as if overnight while none of us were paying attention. We no longer knew how to relate to each other, and it was all tempered by how very hungry we all were, wandering the city streets in Austria. 

During my senior year in college, my dear friend Marsha Steiner got engaged to Tomaś Bartulec, a kind Czech man she met while working abroad in Prague. After two years of courting and many flights back and forth between The Czech Republic and Lincoln, Nebraska, he proposed, and together they planned a Christmas wedding in the small town of Trinec, just south of the Polish border.

Six of us, of her college friends, got the money together for plane fares to Europe. We borrowed backpacks. We told our families that in lieu of Christmas, we’d be half a world away at the wedding, supporting our friend Marsha, of course. It would be worth the great sacrifice, and a week-long jaunt through Central Europe afterward didn’t hurt. 

But it’s hard being in a new world. Exciting, exhilarating, yes. The challenge and adventure can be thrilling, yes, but also hard. The six of us had always been friends under the construct of college—dorm rooms, cafeteria halls, admin buildings, computer labs—but who were we without the comfort of familiar surroundings?

Jeremy wanted to see cathedrals. Gina wanted to buy shoes. Sissel and Tim had been to Europe before and wanted to meander through nostalgia. Unlike the rest of us, Leslie managed to be a good time wherever she went, and I, like I always want, as I’ve always wanted, longed for a quiet corner to sit, sip something delicious, and watch the world around me. 

With all that we disagreed on, one of the more difficult things to navigate was that three of us were vegetarians and three of us were not. Perhaps it is different now in 2022, but nearly two decades ago in Central Europe, vegetarian restaurants weren’t easy to come by, and so we ended up eating a lot of pasta. It was the easiest way that we all could share meals together, and we were all getting sick of it. We were beginning to fracture down the middle. 

It’s been a long three years since we’ve all been together, and the world feels—the world is—different. In this new world, I’ve found myself contemplating the beginning, my first Hutchmoot, over a decade ago now. My friend Ashley had attended before, and when she invited me along and I agreed to go, I asked, as any good Enneagram 6 does, “Is there anything I should think about to prepare?”

“People will assume that you believe all the same things they do,” she said. The last three years have been such a palpable reminder of how not true that assumption is. 

And maybe for some of you, these last few years feel like new territory, but I’ve been brown my whole life. Some of you are women or Asian or differently abled. Even in these crowded halls, even among friends, there are lots of ways someone can feel alone—like a scared nun turned governess for a grieving captain and his seven children. 

Just three Hutchmoots ago, I was having a conversation with a man, a theology student I’d put in his late 20s, who had just become an Anglican and was in the process of studying to become a priest.

“Anglicanism has so much truth,” he said. “I wanted to be aligned with a church that has roots in ancient tradition. ”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “I’ve mostly attended evangelical churches, but I just started to go to a liturgical church and have really loved the rhythm of it.”

“Sure,” he replied, “but not all liturgical churches are created equal. Anglicanism is not like Catholicism or Episcopalianism which have both gotten so much wrong about God.” At the time I was living in Portland, Oregon, and attending services at an Episcopalian Cathedral. 

So how do we do this? Because I still believe it’s worth doing, this being in a room together, after everything that has happened—not just in the past three years, but with all of the stories that each of us carries—when so many of us feel so raw, with everything we’ve experienced, with everything we know…with protests and shootings, with masks and vaccines, with embryos and babies, and banned books, with what each of us may feel about the police, or the president, or whether or not Black Lives Matter.

Let us make Christianity a place where we recognize the Divinity in one another, that breath, that life, that spark that was first shared with us in Eden.

John Cal

When I was a kid growing up in Hawaii, I had a Youth Pastor that would often tell us the story of how the word ‘aloha’ came to be. “Before the ancient Hawaiians became a polytheistic society,” she said “they believed in one god, who they called Alo, and ‘Ha’ is the Hawaiian word for breath. So when we say aloha to one another, we are sharing the breath of God.”

Similarly, Moses’s recording of the creation story found in the second chapter of Genesis talks about the shared breath of our God: “Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground.” Sometimes it’s hard to remember that He made us and He called us good. “He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.”

This acknowledging of breath happens in so many greetings, so many beginnings when people come together around the world—like the nomadic Bedouins, who greet each other by rubbing noses, or the Maori of Aotearoa who rest their foreheads against each other before sharing a sacred breath. In Greenland, it’s called kunik when you sniff someone you love and then press your nose on their skin to breathe on them, and in Tuvalu, you press your cheeks together and inhale. I even hear hints of this sacred exchange in the meaning of the Sanskrit greeting namaste: that which is divine in me bows to that which is divine in you. 

It was raining in Austria, that day when our differences came to a head. By that time, many of us weren’t talking much to one another. In the days before Yelp or smartphones or even coffee shops with Wifi, the best we could do was wander the streets looking for something besides pasta to eat. We walked south away from the Danube past restaurant after restaurant that just wouldn’t do. First through Stephansplatz, down Kärntner Straße. We turned east at the opera house. Then a few blocks down, the place on the corner had a big fish on its sign, and all at once and almost instinctively, like when Peter and Andrew were first called by Jesus, we turned inside. I don’t know how we came to a consensus that the place on the corner was acceptable. We didn’t even look at the menu before we went in, but I do know that being out of the rain helped. I honestly can’t remember what anyone else ordered, but I do remember what my supper tasted like. I was so overwhelmed and afraid to try something new. For a moment, I think I may have even believed that it would have just been simpler to have pasta again, a meal that on face value we all believed in enough, but that didn’t really leave anyone satisfied. 

The waiter helped me order when he saw me panicking with so many choices in front of me. “What does it taste like?” I asked. “Creamy and sharp and a little sweet,” he said. “You might like it.” Isn’t faith the worst? Taking a step into the unknown, believing the assurance that it’s going to be okay, but living in the reality that it might not be. I took a chance on the unknown, the Thom Kha, a Thai soup made with chicken and coconut milk and galangal root; and like so many bowls of soup before—my grandmother’s chicken and rice, my father’s favorite Portuguese bean, bowls of corn chowder shared with friends—it warmed me from the inside. 

As we sat around the table, as the six of us in our differences shared an intimate space, as we supped and breathed together in this new world, it all became just a little easier.

We didn’t have to agree on everything to be friends. We didn’t even have to agree on much. I just had to remember that the person sitting across the table from me was made from the same stuff I was: dust and breath.

I get that the room is still heavy with all the things that may divide us, and whether we should or should not talk about race or sex or politics, or even begin to tackle the really polarizing issues like whether or not Princess Leia is a legitimate Disney Princess. 

I get how hard it is. I get what we are facing tonight as we sit across from each other, as we share in our supper, as we sit across the table not from ideas or beliefs but from real living people. And I am not naïve to believe that a bowl of soup can fix any of that, but I do believe it can help us get to the next step. The ancient Hawaiians understood, as did Moses, and the Bedouins, and the Inuit, and the Maori that the same Divine breath that is in me is also in you. 

Maybe one day I’ll understand too. Maybe one day, I’ll be counted as a person who shares the breath of God. 

So after all this time, let us come together. Let us join with the Divine in the ongoing creation of the world. Let us make Christianity a place where we recognize the Divinity in one another, that breath, that life, that spark that was first shared with us in Eden.

And if for a moment you forget, when it all becomes just a little too hard, first, take a breath, then remember what you’ve been given from the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start.


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