Chapter 12: The People Gatherer

Dallas enveloped me in her open, green arms.

That’s where Sarah Harmeyerwas waiting and she is the epitome of restfulness. Her presence is a porch swing on a lazy summer day when the breeze is blowing just enough to cool the back of your neck, while you are curled up in that half state between reality and dreaming. Sarah is my friend and she the founder of an organization called Neighbor’s Table. I had come to interview her but for the first twenty-four hours I was there, she made me rest. And take long walks. And drink green juice and eat dark chocolate. Next to my bed was a notecard which I’ve kept in my purse for the past year. It’s words reminded me how loved I am. That’s Sarah.

She let me ramble. We went to a house show where a high school kid with the sweetest voice captured our hearts and then we thought her car was stolen. It was a brilliant moment of togetherness as we sat on the curb of surbubia in bewilderment and a 19 year old skateboarded toward us, “I found it!! You were looking in the wrong direction.” And then we sat down and talked about her dream, bringing communities together across the table.

“What was it about me that made you want to interview me?” she asked.

“I’ve watched you love people well,” I told her.

“I’ve watched what you’re doing with Neighbor’s Table grow out of your desire to love people well and I think that’s such a beautiful story to tell to impact and inspire other dreamers. It’s impacted me in my own story because there’s so much brokenness which has happened in the past year and a half. I’ve experienced many moments of not being loved well but also not loving well; from a romantic standpoint but other relationships in my life. Many times this born out of fear or not understanding situations. So, watching you live life fully and loving people well, even from afar has inspired me.”

She looked at me nervously. “I like to be under the radar but I’m trying to share my story better this year, so….do I get to proofread this before you publish it? I don’t want you making me appear larger than life.”

At first I told her she could check it to make sure I didn’t publish any salacious tall tales about her, but then backtracked a bit. “Sarah,” I said, “how I see you, your beauty and amazingness, you can’t downplay that.” She laughed but I see the fear that I would make her appear to be more than who she is was real.

You can’t fake love like Sarah has.

It isn’t something you can trump up and write tall tales about. It is real, legitimate, in the trenches love and I don’t need to write a Paul Bunyan and his blue ox tale to tell you about it.

She moved from Dallas to Houston in 2010 for her work and began to realize she was finding her identity in her work. That wasn’t enough. She began to reshape that identity. It was a busy and difficult time. “I think some of the greatest things come out of when things aren’t working in our lives,” she said, “we get to figure out how we can make that change.”

She loved connecting with people and when friend called her a “people gatherer,” something resonated. Sarah liked the sound of this but she wasn’t sure what it meant, so she spent the rest of 2011 considering what gathering people together might look like. She threw a dinner party for twenty people for a friend’s birthday party and people talked about it for months after it happened. It brought life to her and others who had been there.

As she began to think back to the best moments in her life, she found herself recognizing most of them were based around creating food and events for others. “What if I could gather people around the table?” an idea flickered to life. It began with commissioning her dad to build her a farmhouse style table for twenty to be placed in her backyard. They placed it in the backyard under the oak tree and hung a chandelier over the center and she chose a word for 2012.

It was community.

Sarah only knew two of her neighbors at that time.

She decided to become intentional about gathering people and invite her neighbors. Sarah has also spent a long time in the corporate world and believes in goals that are measurable. So, she set one.

“I decided I was going to serve 500 people in 2012.”

She began inviting people and mailed three hundred invitations to people in the neighborhood for her first dinner. “I put a definition of neighborhood on the invitation said ‘if you’ve never left your house and met anyone, would you consider coming tonight?” she told me. She asked them to bring a dish to share and ninety-one people came. “Father Will is this priest who lives two doors down from me and he sat in this corner smoking a cigar. It looked like confessional over there. People kept lining up. The kids were dancing. I still remember the people I met for the first time that I now know so much about their lives. It was my first touchpoint, just inviting people.”

She told people about it on social media and her goal and people got on board. There were Fourth of July parties, a gathering for a funeral, live music, and small dinner parties. “I think that year I cooked seven turkeys around Thanksgiving,” she laughed, “We had Fakesgiving and Friendsgiving. Every excuse to gather people. But on Thanksgiving day the five hundredth guest walked down the driveway. The sweetest young mom with three little kids, I was nervous because I was so excited. I don’t think anyone understand how life changing that year was for me. It’s like slow motion in my head. My dad was clapping. She had a covered dish in her hand as they walked down the driveway and everyone was cheering. It was really a random mix of people that day who didn’t have a place to go that day. I had made a crown to go on her head that said 500 on it and a big necklace to go around her neck. I gave her a hug and she wore it the entire day,” the smile on her face overwhelms her words and I can hear my sniffles on the recording as I listen to her story.

Neighbor’s Table (table design by Kris Drayovitch.)

“It was such a big deal, seeing my goal accomplished but feeling so happy inside because I was doing the thing God created me to do. Now, I realize that when we play that God has for us it is unmatched joy. I feel that every time I gather people at that people. There have been so many people who have come to that table who didn’t have a place or were really important and it was exciting to love each of them. I think something has really transformed among us who have come to the table but I think it started with me. I think it began with the work God did in me the year before with my identity. Everyone else was telling me who I needed to be but when I finally learned to rest in that and who God says I am, I entertain differently now because I know this is my deal and I can love more freely. This table has become a place where I can invite anyone. People know that anyone can show up and it will be cool. I tell people before the evening begins what I expect. It’s almost like setting the culture and how it’s a place of respect and a place of serving each other. It’s important to me that I lead that.”

Neighbor’s Table has evolved beyond Sarah’s backyard. She’s now building them for the backyards of others both here in the States and beyond. It’s not a tall tale. It’s a love mission and it’s contagious.