The Table Mesa: Songwriting and Bilingual Discipleship on Zoom

The Table Fellowship - Zoom

An Interview with Rick and Carol Wallis and Juan Marentes

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity from its original version.

by Catherine and Henry Miller

The Table Mesa is a bilingual ACNA congregation based in Jacksonville, FL that meets on Zoom with additional members joining from across states and continents. They live out their mission to disciple others by offering places for people to grow in their gifts, namely songwriting and teaching. This is their story of adapting to the restraints of COVID-19 and how God has grown them as they have extended hospitality across language barriers.

Joining us today are Fr. Rick Wallis and his wife Carol, and Fr. Juan Marentes. Rick and Carol have been leading The Table with Mark and Courtney Murray for several years. Friends, tell us a bit about you and how you got connected.

30728096_10156351364216983_814150586130759680_nRICK: Carol and I have been married for 39 years, we have four children and three grandchildren. We have been in the Anglican church for the past 12 years; prior to that, we did ministry in the Vineyard for 14 years locally. Throughout our years of ministry, we’ve been involved in pastoral ministry and musical worship ministry. Juan and Maria we have known for decades.

JUAN: My name is Juan B. Marentes, a Colombian by first citizenship, and then a permanent resident in Belize, and now naturalized in this country for the past six months at least. I learned about The Table before I came here! I was browsing the Redeemer website and I heard of something happening in Jacksonville and later on, I realized that my friends, Rick and Carol, were the people who were hosting a group close to the river. When we moved to Jacksonville, we retired and heard about the group from a friend, and now it’s been two years!

After the first week, we visited The Table, we were so privileged to have Rick and Carol visit us at different times. Rick was very sensitive to my transition from being a missionary for 30 years. He could see that I might need some kind of pastoral care. Everything started from there for me. It led to times of prayer, asking me about ideas, and all of a sudden it became a mutual time of spiritual direction, sharing from brother to brother. Then we discovered that we could learn from each other. Rick wanted to practice his Spanish, and we have been practicing Spanish, twice a week on Zoom. Priests need discipleship, too - [even] retired ones like me, we have an opportunity to discover new dimensions of our priest vocation, and every week we have beautiful types of sharing. 

Thank you! How did your church get started, and how did COVID-19 affect you?
RICK: We started off as a home group with Redeemer (Jacksonville, FL) and felt led to make it into a missional community. We would eat, worship, open the Word, pray together, and then COVID-19 happened. We went to Zoom church only and then one day, Juan asked if he could invite some friends and family who live in Venezuela, Colombia, Houston...and we said, yes, of course! - that would be fine.

CAROL: When we went to the Zoom context, we talked among ourselves and tried to recapture what we found valuable in the Zoom context. It was tough; we went from having a lot of singing and worship time to just one song, but we were able to keep a 20 minute time of prayer that has been a real blessing.

RICK: The Table Mesa meets on Sunday evenings at 5:00 pm currently. On Sunday nights, our structure is simple. We begin with music, then we break into small groups for sharing in prayer. After small group time, we regather to do Bible study. We get together with people during the week in groups of two or three on our front porch or in socially distanced settings. 

CAROL: In these groups of twos and threes we can get to know each other in a deeper way, and share prayer needs on Zoom or in-person on our porch. That’s been really, really great, and the component of that with the Spanish-speaking groups is Juan’s “carnival of grace,” where they meet during the week. That’s an important part of our health as a community.

RICK: One thing we miss is we can’t share meals. We used to have great meals and shared Communion. For us, Communion is bread and a common cup, and we haven’t done that in over a year and a half. But we have experienced the Lord through small groups. I had a friend tune in one day who was going through a difficult time and we were able to just put the brakes on and minister to him. The Holy Spirit is not limited to being in a living room!

One unique aspect about The Table is that you are intentionally bilingual, reading Scripture and singing songs in Spanish and English. How did that get started?
RICK: We have been bilingual since this past Spring. We never planned on being bilingual. It just happened because Juan began inviting friends and relatives from overseas and from other cities in our country to attend our Zoom meetings. He has a real gift of a “gatherer.” He and I collaborate on translating music and discussion questions for our group Zoom meetings.  When he became involved with the Table (back in 2019), we had no plans for doing bilingual ministry. We attribute that to the work of the Lord‘s Spirit, “at such a time as this.”

Juan MarentesJUAN: The table has been a very welcoming space where people from different spaces, places, and ages can gather together. The Hispanics have set apart this time and this has been a real part of their lives on Sunday. It is a difficult time for some of them because Sunday nights is (culturally) family time, but they have valued this so much that now it is becoming a part of our lives. The main component of The Table (in Spanish La Mesa) is having the grace of our Lord and love as the common ground for where we gather. So far, everyone feels well respected, welcomed, there is no pressure for anybody if they do not want to speak. They are attending. We are getting to know each other. Spanish and English speakers are sharing and learning from each other. We are becoming a virtual community. I have seen the fellowship growing for God’s glory.

How do you live out your mission to make disciples in this bilingual context?
RICK: There’s a couple layers: one is the bilingual context, one is the Zoom context. The mixed groups of Spanish and English speakers have been one of these wonderful surprises from the Lord. To do discipleship, there are a couple of really important things. One is to learn each others’ stories, otherwise, discipleship becomes head knowledge. We need to enter the stories of each other: what their stories are, what their struggles are. And then, to pray with each other: we share prayer together. We are sorting out how to replicate what we are experiencing in groups of twos and threes by encouraging people to invite others. Juan is so good at that! He is so good at encouraging and inviting others: pray about it, go and find somebody and begin that one-on-one discipleship.

CAROL: The very nature of the bilingual and Zoom has brought about a different kind of discipleship. For instance, a lot of the people that Juan has invited come from various church backgrounds. I’ve noticed that many of the people he has invited will ask a deep question, really insightful, and we’re all like whoa, that’s a whole new picture right there! It’s brought a whole new dimension to our bible study.

What have you learned this year about discipleship and worship? How has God grown you through this experience?
RICK: About discipleship, we’re learning that there are opportunities for deeper and a more real connection when you meet in groups of twos or threes. When we have our Zoom breakout groups, they are blended, meaning Hispanic and Anglo people in the same small group. This gives us an opportunity to learn each other’s stories and to pray with one another. I believe that learning one another’s stories and praying with each other are essential elements of discipleship.

About worship, I am learning how self-centered I have been in worship. Now that we are singing bilingual songs, I am experiencing how worship is essentially “other-focused.” Our focus now is to bless our Hispanic brethren, not just for me to receive a blessing or to be “filled up” through worship. I feel that I’m growing in a new humility and simplicity in worship. I carry around more spiritual narcissism than I want to be aware of.

CATHERINE: Wow, thanks for your vulnerability! We can sometimes decide what worship will be like and we naturally go towards our own personal preferences and backgrounds, and it has been helpful for me to be a part of this group because this can be my tendency, too.

What has been your experience as a musician and artist in this community?
CAROL: Of the four of us, I am not a Spanish speaker. I’m like 0.1 out of 10! I never learned Spanish, only picked up a few things from Rick and loved ones around us, so it’s a bit of a stretch, to be honest, to translate our songs into Spanish or find good existing bilingual songs. I feel stretched and challenged, but the overarching emotion is joy and love. These people are so precious and they welcome us in, share their hearts, and I see the faces of these people and just love them and I know it is mutual. We would do anything for each other and the hard work of it is just so worth it.

What drew you to having a teaching rotation?
RICK: We have teachers in our fellowship who if we don’t give them an opportunity to exercise their gifts to the extent that they are able to, not only do they lose an opportunity but we lose an opportunity to receive their gifts. It’s like a baseball team - rotate your pitching staff. Carol and I want to recognize the giftings of others and help draw them out. God is at work in each one of us, and when we recognize that Catherine has a skill of writing music, Henry has a skill of writing lyrics, you both have skills in teaching, we’ll give you opportunities from time to time to use them. It draws them out. We’re going to do our best to come alongside with what the Father’s doing.

How have the arts supported the mission of discipleship, especially on Zoom?
CAROL: The arts play a really important part in our community, and like you implied, part of our DNA as a community is to value the bringing of gifts. It just so happens that many people in our community are songwriters, worship leaders, teachers, pastors - and then to increase that, we discovered Zoom as a teaching venue, a lot of the people who rotate and lead us will bring visual artwork we can look at and gain fresh insights from looking at and viewing. Something I really value in our transition has been how Courtney (Murray) immediately said, “Oh! We need a bilingual song!” and she studied for hours with less than a week’s notice (she is a mother of young children and does not speak Spanish). It just sprang from her heart! And then each following worship leader in turn, without being asked, said - Oh! - we need to pick a song that works well with Spanish and English! We also read the Scriptures side-by-side in Spanish and English.

JUAN: The art of expression in The Table is awesome. The most wonderful truths of our salvation, they can be reached for anybody. They are deep but not so complex. The art of making complex things [accessible], for me, is an art, because those things get to the heart of every person.

What encouragement and advice would you like to offer to the wider church community?
RICK: The only encouragement I have is to be flexible and ready to shift quickly when the Holy Spirit leads you to make adjustments or changes. Zoom is an amazing format to reach people we would otherwise never reach. Also, it requires a slower and gentler pace at leading a discussion, which perhaps creates a safer place to be honest and transparent.

When COVID happened, I began to hear people say that “when we get back to normal” and something in me winced and I said, no - normal is not my God. “Back to normal” would be a place of security and comfort.

One question I would leave people with: Would you be willing to be willing to make adjustments and pivot quickly when things change, and let the Lord lead you to do that? Are you willing to pivot away from that if that’s what the Lord is doing?

CAROL: Be willing to take risks; be willing to try. One time some water spilled and the host computer fried; another time I forgot to turn on my microphone when leading a song, but we laugh and grow as we bond with each other. But it worked! People came back the next week. It’s refreshing to see that we can take a risk and God will fill in the gaps. Be willing to try something that maybe has never been done before...that is a way the Holy Spirit can express his heart but it might match the heart of the Father.

RICK: I want my life to be like John 3, moving with the Spirit, where he blows. We thought the Table Fellowship was going in a certain direction and then everything changed. We were on Zoom, and now we are bilingual. Take some risks, and know that the Lord’s spirit is leading you.

At the end of the interview, Juan shared his thoughts with us about how Christians can extend the grace, hospitality, and love of Christ to people who are different from us. We summarized his advice:

  1. First, learn about another culture.
  2. Extend hospitality in worship with simple things: greeting, smiling, making people feel of value.
  3. Time is gold - for most people, this gift of sharing fellowship and time is the most valuable.

Juan says that all of the gifts necessary for the life of the community are there but we need to discover them and put them into practice. By being vulnerable and taking risks, we grow into a collaborative, interdependent body of Christ. All of the gifts in the body are necessary for the community to grow, but we need to take the time to discover them. This happens through spending intentional time with people where we learn one another’s stories, struggles, hopes, and dreams and make space for each other to grow. As Juan said in our interview, “Charity and faith is about fellowship with God, who has granted us the possibility to live with him, to talk with him. If that is what God has done for us, it is the same thing we should do for others: letting them communicate, be themselves, and approaching them - making some effort.”