Healing Tables

By Scott McClellan
In eLetter
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Healing Tables Web

July 7 will mark the one-year anniversary of the shooting in Downtown Dallas in which five police officers were killed and nine were injured. In the days and weeks that followed the tragedy, one IBCer found herself in a position to foster hope and healing for her community.

The horrific tragedy that began on Main Street the evening of July 7, 2016, ended at El Centro College in the early hours of July 8 after a prolonged and violent encounter between the perpetrator and police. El Centro, a place dedicated to education and community development, suddenly found itself marred by brutality and bloodshed. And Jessie Yearwood, a follower of Jesus and a longtime faculty member at El Centro, found herself in a unique position to serve the campus she loves in the wake of an unthinkable tragedy.

Jessie wouldn’t have been in a leadership position to serve her campus and her coworkers in 2016 without a strange series of events in 2015. In spring of that year, El Centro’s faculty association needed a new president, and it’s here that Jessie believes God began to work.

At that time, Jessie was already a passionate educator, but she hadn’t been to many faculty association meetings. (She estimates she may have attended five meetings in the preceding 15 years.) And yet, unbeknownst to her, a conversation began among her colleagues about how they needed to approach Jessie about the role.

“That was so far-fetched it seemed ridiculous,” she remembers. Each time someone suggested that she run for the office, Jessie suppressed her surprise and politely declined. “People kept coming and asking—it actually got annoying,” she laughs. Eventually, she relented, but she simultaneously insisted that she wouldn’t do any campaigning for the position whatsoever. She also reserved the right to back out if her fellow faculty members got too crazy! I get the sense that Jessie was wary of any commitment or emotional investment that might distract her from the work God had for her with her students.

Long story short: when tragedy struck that night in 2016, Jessie Yearwood was the president of the El Centro College faculty association. 

Jessie also marvels at the fact that she wasn’t in her El Centro office that night as she typically would’ve been. Grades were due around that time, and being both a last-minute person and the kind of teacher who wants to give students every opportunity to submit coursework, it was her custom to hold off on entering grades until the deadline drew near. For the first time in her career, she happened to submit her grades early for that term, which allowed her to take care of some errands that fateful Thursday.

She didn’t end up going into the office that day. She wasn’t there for the carnage. But her habit of being in the office after hours was so well known to others that when news broke of what was happening at El Centro, she was overwhelmed by calls and text from friends and students checking to make sure she was safe.

In the days that followed, Jessie was one of just a few people who were allowed to be on campus as the FBI conducted its investigation. And it was at that time, sensing a great need, she began to respond. First, she served the FBI team alongside her colleagues, as well as she could and sensed God beginning to work in that difficult time. Then, she was inspired to take another step, so she pitched an idea to her superiors and was given green light to proceed.

As the campus reopened to faculty, staff, and administrators, Jessie and a team of faculty created a special experience. Local restaurants had brought so much food to feed the investigators that Jessie’s team was able to take the leftovers and set up long tables designed to help their colleagues “lighten the load over a meal.” That was Jessie’s invitation to her wounded community, and all with leftovers.

“No one was allowed to come pickup food and leave,” she says, “everyone had to stay and talk and connect.” 

Jessie called the tables “healing tables,” and they lived up their name. There’s no doubt in her mind that the hospitality and conversations people experienced at those tables helped start the healing process at El Centro. A year later, as she recounts this story, her voice is thick with the glory and gravity of someone who has seen God bring restoration to hurting people. And she knows that her life is about participating in that restoration.

On campus, I’m a secret agent, so to speak,” she told me. “Teaching is a cover for the relationships that I build. Those people eventually move on and build their lives, and that’s ok. The Lord just intersects where he needs to.”

At the end of our conversation, I asked Jessie if she’d be open to me sharing her story with the people of IBC. She paused for a moment, then agreed on one condition: “If it helps the body understand that we don’t have to be special in terms of how God shows up when we don’t expect him to. And if it helps people see how the mission of God shows up in these unusual ways.”

To me, Jessie’s life and story bear witness to those truths. We don’t have to see ourselves as superheroes when we know that it’s God who rescues and renews. We simply have to trust in his power his goodness, even in the most difficult of circumstances, and be willing to be an instrument of his grace right where he has placed us. “If we listen and look for him, he shows up in the most unexpected ways,” Jessie says. “Oh, does he ever.”

We can’t control when or where tragedy will strike in a broken world, but we can set tables of healing amid the wreckage and watch God work. 

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