A rabbi, a school teacher, an economics major and a director of a non-profit sit down for a meal: It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but I assure you, it is not. It is lunch at Acton University.
I find it difficult to think of another single event that draws together such a diverse group of individuals from around the world, all focused on one ideal: exploring the intellectual foundations of a free and virtuous society. The Acton Institute sets the benchmark very high for this event, held every year in Grand Rapids, MI, in June, and I am pleased to say that every year, we seem to exceed our own expectations.
Don't mistake this for hubris; it is the very people who attend that make Acton University the heady experience that it is. I could talk about our impressive faculty (whose expertise ranges from economics to human trafficking to theology to community development and on), but those who attend Acton University are really the "heart and soul" of the event.
By no means do I wish to downplay the sessions; substantive issues are engaged, learning takes place and ideas (and ideals) are formed. But there is something about meal time at Acton University…
As I wrote in my book, Defending the Free Market, I grew up in Brooklyn "in the middle of a vibrant multi-ethnic experiment." Italian food, Jewish meals, the smell of a kosher pizza parlor: these are the olfactory memories of my childhood. While the meals at Acton University are not the humble ones of my formative years, the fact that we sit down to share this time together is not a small part of the Acton University experience. In fact, some attendees say the meals are their favorite part.
We do our best to serve quality food, but the essence of meal time is almost a sense of esprit de corps – a camaraderie of people who, formerly unacquainted, break bread together and become friends.
Scripture, of course, is abundant with images of food and meals. Manna rains down upon the hungry Israelites and Christ breaks bread with his beloved Apostles. The Psalmist proclaims, "You have set a table before me," and the early Christians gather to share a meal in common. While the feeding of the body is clearly important to God, in scripture it is always metaphor for spiritual food as well.
Meal times during Acton University are a time to catch one's breath, digest not only food but the session one has just attended and connect with other attendees. It is during these times one has a chance to meet a scholar or a student or a school teacher, and share a bit about each other's lives. One gets to ask, "What did you learn this morning?" and more importantly, "How does it apply to what you do?" We gather to share our day, our knowledge, our learning and our lives. Like any good meal, it is more than merely passing the bread and butter; it is a convivial affair, filled with provocative conversation and memorable companions.
Every year at Acton University, I have the privilege of meeting new people. Some of them are Acton interns, who start during the week of Acton University, eager to work and learn. Some are people visiting America for the first time, and have chosen Acton University as the event that draws them to our nation. I meet pastors and teachers, wealthy executives and people working hard to bring economic growth to the developing world. I meet bloggers and mothers, administrators and scholars. I meet Jews and Muslims, Christians of every denomination, people from nations on nearly every continent. And we sit down to enjoy a meal together, three times a day, while we learn.
Before each evening meal, we ask one of the many pastors at Acton University to offer the blessing. We pause to give thanks to God for the food, the hands that prepared it, for our time together and to remember those who go without. The dining room, full of more than 800 people, is hushed as we focus on our attention on God and His goodness.
And then we eat, share, and learn from each other. The inimitable Julia Child, known for bringing the art of French cooking to mainstream America, once said, "A party without cake is really just a meeting." Acton University is more than just a meeting or a conference; it's a party…and we invite you to join us.
Rev. Sirico is president and co-founder of the Acton Institute.