There is something exciting about moving into a new place. It’s fun to enter a new apartment, house, or town, making choices about where to live, arranging furniture, choosing a paint color, picking out curtains or blinds, and decorating the walls. It can also be a challenging and unsettling time as we attempt to make connections with our new neighbors and find our place in the new community. When I was a student at McCormick Theological Seminary in the mid-1980s, our young family of three moved into seminary housing, a second-floor apartment in a three-story brick walk-up. These apartments were in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago and owned by the Lutheran seminary affiliated with our Presbyterian seminary. Our apartment was old, worn but roomy, and within walking distance to classrooms and the seminary library.

My wife, our eldest son, and I were invited into a food group. That’s what I remember calling it. It wasn’t anything officially organized by the seminary or a local congregation. Rather, we were four households with three very young children living in seminary housing that decided on their own to get together. Our food group met four nights a week, Monday through Thursday from 6:00pm and 7:00pm. We had four rules. First, each household cooked once a week providing dinner and hosting the entire group in their apartment. Second, the meals were vegetarian, not because we were all vegetarians, but it was cheaper and probably healthier not to buy meat for four households. Three, we met for only one hour. And, finally, the other three families were not allowed to clean up after dinner. The system worked well. Each household cooked only once instead of four nights in a row. It was more efficient with time and money. And, we became very good friends by enjoying a dinner together four nights a week for nearly two years, becoming important parts of one another’s lives. We quickly found our place in the food group and the larger seminary community.

Over the past three weeks, it feels like we’ve moved to a new place–attempting to stay at home 24/7 with a few short trips to the grocery each week, going out for a daily walk or exercise, and connecting with our friends, extended family, and people at work using Zoom, Google Meet, and our cell phones. Our familiar neighborhoods seem like a new place where, often, grocery stores don’t have toilet paper, eggs, milk, flour, chicken, or sanitizer, and restaurants are places where we purchase take-out dinners at curbside. In local parks, we can’t sit down in groups or play team sports. And, we’ve entered this new place without ever leaving our familiar apartments or houses. For the past days, I’ve been thinking about the food group back in Chicago. We cannot gather in food groups now, but I wonder if there will be new ways of gathering and connecting with friends in the months ahead. As the health crisis and the economic news gets worse, we might begin to reexamine our daily routines. During this time of sheltering in place, we have an opportunity to reflect on our individual and collective lives thinking about food, friendships, work, recreation, and lifelong learning. How might we reorganize our households and our life together? What do you long for? What do you need? How might you find support from neighbors or friends during the months ahead? It might not look like a food group with small children, but it may look different than our current habits, and maybe some of us might consider food groups as the economy worsens. There are some who simply want to go back to the way things were before the pandemic. That may not be possible for millions of people in our country. Now is a time to reflect, talk, and imagine a new way forward.

In the years leading up to WWII, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, theologian, and activist, was imagining new ways of living in community. For him, gratitude is essential to our spiritual lives and for nurturing community. In his book, Life Together, he wrote, “We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things?” While we think about the big changes in our lives today and anticipate the future, Pastor Bonhoeffer provides us with a profound spiritual insight: there are no small gifts. God entrusts great things to those who thankfully receive the little things. Now is a time to think about the ordinary and small things that are really very important, food, friendships, work, recreation, and lifelong learning. As we move into this new place individually and as a nation, we have already begun to express gratitude for the so-called ordinary and small things that really are not that small. We applaud the nurses, physicians, healthcare workers, first-responders, restaurant workers, and others providing essential services during this crisis.

Many years ago, our family gathered for dinner and conversation each evening in our food group. It was a way of coping with all of the challenges we were facing as young adults with little money and too much stress. As we face the future in this new place, we can find a way forward by focusing on gratitude, friends, food, work, recreation, and lifelong learning. The small and ordinary things are not really small. They are the building blocks of our new life together.