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The kitchen table is a potent symbol. During recent elections, it became the metaphorical site where families wrestled with the household budget, struggling to make ends meet in an unforgiving economy.

Yet, the image of a modest table where families gather is more than just a symbol of modern-day angst. It is also being rediscovered as the venue where bonds between busy parents and children, extended family and neighbors are reaffirmed and where breaking bread actually breaks down barriers.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we officially celebrate for the 25th year this January 17, knew something about the healing properties of a common table and a great deal about breaking down the walls of bigotry and alienation. His vision held that America's racial scars could only be healed and our nation's union made more perfect if we agreed to "sit down together at a table of brotherhood."

Dr. King often turned to his faith's deep traditions to preach on the symbolic power of a shared table; where nourishment displaces emptiness, dialogue banishes silence, and reconciliation flourishes where there was once detachment and resentment. Yet, at one of his darkest hours, he also found the personal power to persevere at his own kitchen table.

In his biography of Dr. King, Bearing the Cross, Dave Garrow describes a late night in 1956. His family, including his infant baby girl, was asleep but, after a barrage of threatening phone calls, Dr. King found himself unable to rest, alone at his family table. "It was around midnight. I got to the point that I couldn't take it any longer. I was weak...I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it...I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, "Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think I'm right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now. I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. And I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak." Then it happened. And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared."

Perhaps now, in these times of economic uncertainty and political animosity, when lost jobs and divided loyalties challenge family and country alike, we should once again return to the restorative power of a shared meal at a common table.

Research now affirms what tradition has long held true -- that sitting down and eating together has an array of benefits. Children who have regular meals with their parents and siblings are less likely to smoke or use drugs, have a lower incidence of depression and have better grades (Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 2004).

But the benefits serve more than the nuclear family; they extend and strengthen our national identity. As a 2006 TIME magazine story noted; "meals together send the message that citizenship in a family entails certain standards beyond individual whims. This is where a family builds its identity and culture. Legends are passed down, jokes rendered, eventually the wider world examined through the lens of a family's values. In addition, younger kids...hear how a problem is solved, learn to listen to other people's concerns and respect their tastes."

Not since 1968, the year of Dr. King's death, has our nation's sense of unity been so tested and our need to find common ground been more pronounced. Our public square is increasingly marred by vitriol and even violence. We are fighting two foreign wars. Our economy continues to sputter, leaving millions of families on the brink of crisis. Thirteen million American children live in poverty. Despite some gains, graduation rates have stagnated for certain racial and ethnic groups: Forty-six percent of black students, 44 percent of Latinos, and 49 percent of Native Americans did not earn a diploma in four years in 2010.

Yet, our nation's greatest assets have never been in greater evidence: our commitment to community. There are 70 million young Americans -- our country's most diverse generation -- who are demonstrating historically high commitments to community service. There are also 80 million aging Baby Boomers -- our country's most educated and richest generation -- who are now looking back and reflecting on their lives. Many of them remember Dr. King first hand. They grew up hearing his words and his voice still calls to them. They too stand ready to serve.

The Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday is aptly seen as a day to celebrate this great American's life and explore the foundational experience of our American tradition: service to others. But it should also be seen as a day to rediscover what continues to makes our country great: the results we generate when we work together.

So this year, let us gather around the table to give voice to the dream and action to the words of Dr King. Let a new national dialogue begin, and let it start with the idea of sharing the best of ourselves around our national table of plenty.

 

Follow Michelle Nunn on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mnunnatpoli