How One Woman Created a Community Out of a Neighborhood

Shauna Niequist

My friend Sarah and I worked at a summer camp together about a hundred years ago, and we reconnect whenever I’m in Texas. I spent a weekend in Dallas in December, and Sarah invited me over for lunch with a few friends. She told me that every year she chooses a theme word, and that her word for 2012 was COMMUNITY.

She decided that instead of talking about community in some vague but well-intentioned way, her specific goal would be to gather 500 people around her table in 2012, one meal at a time.

She asked her dad to build a table in her backyard. It’s a gorgeous outdoor cedar dining table with benches that seat 22 people, and in the trees high above the table they hung chandeliers made from twisted branches.

She hosted lunches and dinners and neighborhood concerts. She invited friends and neighbors and strangers to share meals around her table. She marked every holiday with an invitation that said “the more, the merrier.” And then on Thanksgiving Day, the 500th guest sat at her table—she’d reached her goal more than a month early.

When 2012 began, Sarah knew the names of two neighbors. By the end of that year, she knew over 50. She threw 27 parties, averaging 19 guests per party. Her parties were attended by eighth-graders and executives; gay friends and grandparents; priests, pilots, and Pilates instructors.

At every party, guests signed their names on the table, and Sarah says that the community they formed along the way wrote the story of that table together. And the gatherings themselves unfolded with community spirit — one person holding a new mom’s baby so she could eat for a minute, someone jumping up to refill glasses, a first-time guest volunteering to load the dishwasher. Everyone pitched in, and some of the sweetest memories were made bumping into each other in the kitchen, washing dishes together long after dinner was over.

Our lunch was mid-December, an unseasonably warm day. I came a little early, and the table was already set with navy and white stripes—my favorite thing. So very thoughtful. So very Sarah. We opened a bottle of sparkling rose and caught up in the kitchen while we made carrot soup with cilantro cream, poppyseed chicken, asparagus and tomato salad.

When the guests arrived, we stood in a circle and she introduced each one. She does this, I learned, at every gathering — she says something wonderful about each person as she introduces them, because she wants every guest to feel confident as they sit down with new faces, and she wants each person to know just a little bit about the people they’re sitting with.

I realized during the introductions that many of these friendships had been created around this table. Before the table, before this year, before the goal, these were strangers, but one came to a dinner with another friend, another showed up at Easter, another for brunch: community born and nurtured around the table.

My dear friend Sarah turned her backyard into a dining room, and set what seemed like an impossible goal. And then meal by meal, week by week, friend by friend, she lived out her intention. Her life changed because of it, and so did the lives of hundreds of people, literally, in Dallas and beyond.

When I look back at 2012, at the moments that shaped me and spoke to me most profoundly, I count the hours around Sarah’s lovely backyard table as among the most meaningful of the year.

What’s your word for 2013? What steps or goals will bring about that word?

Shauna Niequist

Shauna Niequist

This is a post by Shauna Niequist, one of the Storyline Contributors. Pick up a copy of her latest book, Bread & Wine on her website and make sure to follow along on Twitter (@sniequist) for regular updates. To read more of her posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.