Anvil journal of theology and mission
Miranda Harris and Jo Swinney, A Place at the Table: Faith, Hope and Hospitality (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2022)
reviewed by Idina Dunmore, Pioneer Curate at St John, Southall Green
I found A Place at the Table to be a beautiful book that deftly defies literary categorisation. It is edited and part-written by Jo Swinney, together with gathered writings of her mother, Miranda Harris, who tragically died in a car accident along with two friends and colleagues in South Africa in 2019.
This book, arising out of that time of grief and loss for Jo and her family, is a combination of memoir, biography, lived-theology, Christian discipleship and a missional reminder to all of God’s ever-welcoming love. Jo describes the content as a “smorgasbord”. This is apt, as the rich variety of writing is arranged to correspond with a meal’s structure: hunger, preparation, welcome, at the table, the clean-up, the forever feast.
Each chapter has the following aspects crafted through it:
- theological and explanatory content from Jo.
- notes gleaned from Miranda’s writing: over 20 years of drafting about community and belonging, notes of talks, newsletters and more.
- creative retelling of meal-based Bible stories.
- edited sections of Miranda’s journal entries from 1983–2019.
The last of these was recovered from the river following her fatal accident, which is extremely moving and worthy of reflection as she quotes 2 Tim. 4:18: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory …”
Peter and Miranda Harris were the pioneer founders of A Rocha, which describes itself as: “a global family of conservation organizations working together to care for creation” (www.arocha.org). Through her collated writings in this book, Miranda paints a compelling picture of their family life, rooted in A Rocha communities in Portugal and France, detailing the way they lived out A Rocha’s founding value of community (one of five values beginning with the letter “C”). Jo Swinney has become the director of communications for A Rocha International, so naturally the history and heart of A Rocha’s eco-narrative permeate this book, and important details of her own life story are included among Miranda’s writings.
Jo sets out her hope that the reader of this book will gain a deeper personal understanding of the hospitality God offers each of us, and be moved to experience the joy and wonder of hospitality by practically reaching out in welcome, especially beyond our comfort zones, to build significant relationships in community.
The variety of sources of writing give this book a vibrant and reflective feel, and the editors have tried hard to clarify the different voices using distinct fonts and illustrated page breaks. However, personally I found the multi-faceted structure confusing at times, being unsure whose voice I was reading, especially if I dipped into the book. In trying to tie so much material together, I also wondered if the opportunity to dive deeper into each topic was lost, for example drawing out learnings about hospitality across more diverse cultures, or greater critical discourse into justice and equity for the growing number of people in food poverty within the UK and across the world.
In a similar way to Miranda and Jo, my passion for welcome and hospitality began when I lived in a missional Christian community in London. Through a ministry of presence, we wanted to learn to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves” Luke 10:27. We invited many people into our home, which initially developed into a weekly bring-and-share drop-in meal with neighbours and friends, and subsequently became a Fresh Expression congregation called The Table.
For this reason, I resonate with very many aspects of this book, but would recommend it to a wide audience because it is readable and accessible. Both for those new to considering God’s welcome, and for those of us for whom hospitality is a foundation of faith, this book offers an inspirational life story, with basic theological background and practical “how-to” pointers. For example, the bibliography includes recipe books! I loved the simple points of challenge, and the sparkling creative prose. This may also be a book to gift to others, as I am sure that Jo also hopes that those undecided about Christian faith will be impacted by her mother’s testimony of a God who loves each of us, and longs to transform us, with the ultimate assurance that Miranda is now celebrating the “forever feast” of the “best meats and finest wines” (Isa. 25:6) with Jesus.