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 VOL. 23, NO. 11DECEMBER 5, 1997 


Unity Through 'Common Meals'

Chaplain Invites Students to Share Ideals and Ideas


Record Photos by Amy Callahan.
In the busy lives of Columbia students, days are spent studying algorithms, ancient texts or economic theory. They are filled with meetings, study groups, choir rehearsal. But during one calm evening in their college careers, many students are invited to a candle-lit dinner discussion at the home of University Chaplain Jewelnel Davis.

  Called "common meals," these events are Davis' way of building community at Columbia, one supper at a time.

  "Communities are built on relationships between people," Davis says. "Maybe I am too much of a Martin Buber groupie, and a Martin Luther King Jr. admirer, but I do believe in beloved community. I trust the opportunities and possibilities inherent in the relationships we develop when we meet people with respect and greet them with hope."

Sharing the evening with Chaplain Davis, center, were College students, from left, Elinor Adams, Chano Bloom, Maia Bernstein and Jonathan McKeever.

  Now in her second year of hosting common meals, Davis and her helpful band of Chaplain's Associates (undergraduate work-study students) and social work and seminary interns have welcomed literally hundreds of students into her home on Riverside Drive. The evenings always center around a meal and a theme related to campus life, such as minority concerns, athletics or religion. And there are always a handful of administrators or faculty members sharing couch space with the students. When President George Rupp attended common meal, he rolled up his sleeves and performed dish-washing duty. Provost Jonathan R. Cole, chief dish-dryer, is a regular, having attended six common meals.

  Part of the joy of common meal, students say, is the atmosphere: the candles and the candor. Everyone leaves their shoes, and often their stress, at the door.

  "It's like you're shedding the tensions of the world and coming into a space that's peaceful and centering," explained Maia Bernstein, CC'99. "There's a sense of ahhhh—here I am."

  Henrik Haeckel, CC'00, said: "We're all listening to each other, not judging everyone else. There's a sense that everyone is willing to listen respectfully and caringly to everyone else."

  This is all by design. Davis opens each common meal with a reading. From her matriarch's perch in a wing back chair, with the stocking-footed students gathered around on her rug and comfy chairs, she reads: "How good it is to center-down! To sit quietly and see one's self pass by... We look at ourselves in this waiting moment—the kinds of people we are. The questions persist: What are we doing with our lives?" (from For the Inward Journey by Howard Thurman.)

Filling a plate and making new friends.

  In explaining the origin of common meal, Davis credits the Columbia community. "This is very Columbia-specific," she says. "I did not come here with the idea of doing common meal." Rather the idea came from Columbia students and was launched because of the enthusiasm of Cole. "Jonathan was invited and immediately wanted to come twice."

  During her first months at Columbia in the fall of 1996, Davis talked to hundreds of students and found "there just weren't places and spaces and time to have the three together: students, faculty and administrators." So, the common meal was born.

  This interaction is appreciated by the students, as illustrated by their warm applause when Provost Emeritus Wm. Theodore de Bary, CC'41, sitting beside his wife, Fanny, BC'43, spoke of their 55-year commitment to each other. "We met at a tea dance at Barnard. We've been together ever since."

  Also inspiring are the sentiments shared by students at common meal, Davis says.

  "Our students are terrific. They are eloquent and passionate speakers and engaged listeners. Common meal is hopefully a first step in on-going relationships." She noted that one guest, Susana Morales, assistant clinical professor of internal medicine, has become a mentor to students pursuing careers in medicine.

  During a recent common meal with religious students, the young people spoke philosophically about the purpose of their lives, and how they "center down." Some students spoke of their search for truth, others their devotion to their faith, and one young woman spoke of her early morning routine of waking before dawn, while her roommate is still sleeping, to watch the sunrise. In turn, administrators and faculty talked about their own centering moments.

  Cole, who happened to be among the guests that night, said his 18-hour working days don't provide much opportunity to center down, but he tries to achieve it through walks on the beach and reading novels. And, he said, by attending common meal.

  "These are special events at Columbia, not only because of the host, but they're also special because of the people who come here and open up, who feel calm and secure," Cole said. "I only hope we can do more of this at different places in the University."