MEET KRISTIN

“I love hospitality but really dread actual entertaining. True entertaining highlights my weaknesses and feels very intimidating to me.  I’m probably the most non-Martha Stewart person out there, and trying to make my home and table look ‘entertaining ready’ and perfect feels like a huge burden.  Feeding my neighbors is different than entertaining.  Feeding my neighbors and friends feeds my soul.”

I’m so happy that I get to introduce you to Kristin Pavon.  A married mother of two young kids (Zoey, a 5 year old daughter; and Brady, a 3 year old son).  Kristin began her career as corporate recruiter for Starbucks in her hometown of Seattle, and is currently a full time stay-at-home mom living in San Diego, CA.  In addition to caring for her family, Kristin serves her alma mater (Washington University in St Louis) as the “Executive Chair for the Alumni & Parents Admission Program”, and also as the “Alumni Club Co-Chair for San Diego County”.

And at least 2-3 times a month, this self proclaimed “non-Martha Stewart” woman invites her neighbors, friends and their kids into her home for family-style dinners.

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Kristin and her husband Mike are raising their family in the neighborhood of North Park.  A diverse, urban community that is just northeast of downtown San Diego.  “North Park is a neighborhood where kids still go around knocking on doors to ask if other kids can come outside and play.  The dinners I host weren’t planned in the beginning.  They started spontaneously as parents on our street came outside to watch their kids play and chat in our front yards.  One day it was getting close to dinner time, and none of us wanted the conversation to end.  So I invited families to come into my house to eat dinner together. And we’ve continued to do so about once a week.”

These neighborhood dinners typically include 3-4 families.  And the menu is most often a buffet of frozen lasagna, veggies, and garlic bread (purchased ready-made from Costco), served with a jug of lemonade, on paper plates.  Kristin prepares the food and then many of the parents pitch in to get everyone served.  The kids sit around the patio table eating and giggling, while their parents eat and visit standing in the kitchen or sitting on the living room floor.  The happy result of having more people gathered to share a meal than there are chairs.

This is hospitality at it’s best.  Simple meals enjoyed in a casual, homey setting.

And this picture beautifully illustrates Kristin’s philosophy of hospitality, “It is a blessing to go to someone else’s house and be fed.  People don’t care if the food is homemade.  Even sharing take-out is a way to love other people.  Sharing a meal – regardless of how it is prepared – is just a great way to care for people and relieve some of life’s burdens.”

Before she started inviting neighbors into her home for dinner, Kristin had chatted with the other parents on her street, but she didn’t really know any of them well.  Sharing meals has created a not only a sense of community in her neighborhood, but deep, life-giving friendships that create a network of support that now stretches far beyond a weekly meal.

Kristin traces her love of hospitality back to her roots of growing up in Seattle in a large Catholic family that gathered often in each others homes to celebrate holidays and significant life events.  “Many members of my family didn’t have large houses.  But we always got together, sharing a potluck meal, bumping elbows at a crowded table, laughing and talking, while the kids ran around.”

And then as a young single adult living and working in downtown Seattle, Kristin started the “Tuesday Night Dinner Club, also known as TNDC”.  She and several friends would gather once a week in their studio apartments to learn how to cook together.  Hosting duties rotated each time they met.  It was the responsibility of the weekly host to set the menu, prepare the main dish, and assign side dishes to other people in the group.  And Every Tuesday after work, they would arrive at the host’s tiny urban apartment to share their dishes and the love of family.

These treasured memories are the basis of her understanding that when it comes to hospitality, the size of your home and your mastery or desire for cooking doesn’t really matter.  “If I am comfortable, then everyone else is comfortable.”  Because Kristin has learned through experience that people don’t need the ideal set up to eat and connect; they simply need an invitation.

If you are considering being more intentional about inviting your friends and neighbors into your home to share a meal, Kristin wants to encourage you to “Just do it!”

“Think the opposite of themed, beautiful, and ready,” she advises, “Throw all of that out the window and just feed people what you have.  Invite people into a lived in home.  And get over worrying about the mess.  Embrace the mess.  It a sign that people are being loved.”

MEET CARLA

“I was raised in Idaho, in a small town of 2,400 people.  I don’t want to move back,” Carla laughs, “but as I made my home in San Diego I missed knowing people in my community and seeing familiar faces.”

Twenty years ago, Carla moved to San Diego shortly after her college graduation to begin her adult life in a big city, teaching at a private high school.  Today she is a dedicated wife and mom of two industrious teenagers.  After a series of moves around Southern California her family settled in Carmel Valley, a suburb in the northwest corner of San Diego, in 2008.  In this flourishing neighborhood, Carla rediscovered the familiarity of community at a local coffee shop near her new  home.

After three weeks of running into the same Starbucks every morning following school drop-offs, a man enjoying coffee with some friends stopped Carla as she was rushing past him and asked her to introduce herself.

She did, and ended up sitting with them to enjoy her coffee and the amiable conversation.  It was a welcomed change from consuming her iced vanilla latte alone while unpacking boxes.  “I left Starbucks that day feeling like it was nice to meet some people in my neighborhood,” said Carla, “But what I didn’t expect was that it would grow into deep and meaningful relationships.”

The following day she sat with this same group of people, getting to know them while sipping her morning coffee.  And eight years later she continues to gather every weekday morning with these friends at the local Starbucks to share life with her “coffee group”.  A community that is bound by a common love for coffee, camaraderie, and good conversation.

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It turns out that this group of friends have been meeting for over 14 years.  New people have been added, familiar faces have moved away, but a common core providing consistency and reliability has always remained.  Group members range in ages from 14-75, spanning many demographics.  “I never expected to have such a wide circle of people in my life,” says Carla, “Investing in friendships with people of different faiths, beliefs, values, and political perspectives has helped me to be a better listener.  I’ve realized that despite our differences we all have a similar desire to be accepted and included in other people’s lives.”

Carla – who is committed to the beliefs and daily practices of Christian faith – adds, “When you are raised in the church you feel like your community is supposed to be inside the church.  But my community formed from befriending some wonderful people outside of my church.  We share these amazing connections simply because we are all intentional about deepening our relationships with our neighbors beyond saying hello regardless of our differences.  Everyday I get to do the very thing Christ directly instructed His followers to do:  Go, Love, and Live out His word in our neighborhoods.”

Over the years, this close-knit group of coffee lovers have expanded their connections far beyond gathering at the local coffee shop.  They visit each other’s homes for birthday parties, Superbowl festivities, and Thanksgiving feasting.  They meet up for Happy Hour with their spouses, and participate in significant celebrations with one anothers extended family, friends, and neighbors.

If you have a desire to know people in your neighborhood better Carla suggests, “Make an effort of doing the same thing on a regular basis with the intention of getting to know people.  Most people want to talk about themselves, and don’t often get a chance to.  Just asking people at a local coffee shop questions like, ‘What are you doing today?’ or ‘How did (blank) go?’, if you talked to them the previous day, can open the door to friendship.”

And she adds, “Most people respond positively to being noticed.  But not everyone chooses to sit down and join the conversation.  Many people have a lot going on in life.  Everyone has their journey and a ‘no’ to our invitation for friendship is not a personal rejection.  It’s just not the right season for them to develop a new relationship.  Building community often requires extra grace for others and for ourselves.”

Do you have a story you can share with us about how you got to know your neighbors better?   And if you are wanting to create a community of belonging in your neighborhood, where can you spend intentional time this week inviting strangers into conversations that can lead to friendship?

MEET ELEANOR

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“I can cook to survive, but not to entertain.”

That was the first thing Eleanor shared when we meet recently at a local coffee shop to talk about why we love to cook for other people.

While Eleanor may not be what she describes as a “natural domestic”, she does have a huge heart for bringing people together through shared meals.  You can find her in her church’s kitchen several times each week, organizing and serving community meals to help people of all ages connect over food.

Eleanor is a Hispanic woman who grew up watching her mom cook for a large extended family, who most often gathered around the table.  At an early age she recognized that valuable moments happen when people linger and talk over a shared meal.  Eleanor’s mom also taught her that when you cook for people it is important to prepare an abundant meal so that the person at the end of the line always knows that there is plenty of food.

But Eleanor didn’t began gravitating towards cooking for her community until she started volunteering in her son’s schools.  At that time she was drawn to cooking because of the numerous ways she had witnessed and experienced genuine fellowship at her church through shared meals.

After her son graduated from high school and her volunteer responsibilities at her local schools lessened, she and a friend decided to start providing a meal at her church’s weekly youth gathering.  At first her intention was merely to lessen the workload for the leaders.  But as she befriended new people, she became more invested in that community, and eventually Eleanor began leading a church kitchen team to prepare a weekly community dinner.  

“I didn’t used think community cooking was in me,” says Eleanor, “but it was all along.”

Recently her church launched a Sunday evening service for 17 – 22 year olds, called “1722”.  When Eleanor learned that the church leaders planned to order a pizza dinner to serve the participants before the service, she quickly elicited the help of the same friend who cooked with her for the youth group leaders (her “partner in crime”) and together they volunteered to provide a family style meal to this new community.  Instead of delivered pizza, the group of college-age young adults arrived at the service to be greeted by warm, homemade enchiladas, fresh salad, dessert.  And enough food for the person at the end of the line to receive as much as the first.

Community dinner at 1722
Community dinner at 1722

Thinking about that initial dinner, Eleanor said, “It’s hard to describe the feeling I had at that first meal of 30 kids talking and sharing over a meal I had prepared.  It was so heart-warming for me.”

Eleanor does not provide every meal for this Sunday evening service.  Instead she uses all the knowledge and experience gleaned from years of school volunteering to recruit and organize additional cooks, as well as donors to help cover the food costs.  Eleanor explains, “It’s like loaves  fishes.  I give from my set of gifts and God multiplies it to meet others needs.”

She is no longer worried or intimidated to cook for 30-40 people.  In regards to her evolution from an “unnatural domestic” to a competent community cook, Eleanor reflects, “My confidence has grown not because I’m a better cook.  My confidence as a cook has grown because I see purpose, meaning, and calling in what I do.”

Some of the challenges Eleanor has faced in regards to community cooking are filling the cooking and serving calendar with enough volunteers, always having the meal ready on time (if the meal is late, it delays everything else programmed for the service), and planning menus that use up food in the church kitchen that are left over from other events.  But she has found motivation and help by asking friends to help.  As well as regularly watching “The Pioneer Woman”, and asking herself “What would Ree do?” when she’s in a cooking jam!

When asked what her advice is to someone wanting to build community through cooking, Eleanor suggests that people identify a group they want to support that’s already meeting.  Offer to cook a meal for them to aid their work and help them build connections.  Because sharing food helps us share our lives, and often in those conversations we find direction in who we are supposed to be.

In addition to being the proud mom of a 21-year-old son and a community cook, Eleanor is also married and works as a staff liaison placing care-givers in homes with seniors.

What about you?  Is there a group you can support by cooking for them?

MEET SARAH

I’m so excited to share a link to an article about the inspiring story that has most radically shaped our community dinners.

The article is written by Shauna Niequist – one of the most influential women in my journey – about her friend Sarah Harmeyer of Neighbor’s Table.  I heard these women co-speak at a Storyline Conference in San Diego a couple of years ago.   The purpose of the conference is to apply the concepts of great story writing as a guide for living an intentional and meaningful life.

Sarah is such an amazing example of this concept because she took pretty radical action on her desire to know her community better, by asking her dad to build her a table that can seat 22 people in her backyard.  She began inviting random neighbors over for dinner, whether she knew them or not, and today countless meaningful and beautiful connections have grown from Sarah whole-heartedly pursuing a dream that seemed incredibly ambitious.

Neighbor's Table
Neighbor’s Table

These women’s stories are so tightly woven into mine, even though I don’t actually know them.   Although I did speak with Shauna Niequest briefly when I ran in to her at the end of the conference.   I was coming out of the restroom and she was rushing to an exit to catch her flight home.  Our conversation was a bit awkward, because I may have been just a bit too enthusiastic for a kind but exhausted women who was at the end of a speaking tour and anxious to get home to her family.  Everyone reading this who knows me well is chuckling and feeling empathy for Shauna!

Nevertheless, the inspiration I gleaned from both of these women broadened my dreaming about what our weekly dinners could look like.  And eventually lead to the gift from our community of a table that can seat 20 people built for our backyard that is signed by everyone who shares a meal with us.

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I’m forever grateful for these women and the gift of their story that has made mine so much richer.

http://storylineblog.com/2013/01/30/a-community-out-of-a-neighborhood/

What are your thoughts about Sarah’s story?  What are you dreaming about for community connections in your home?

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