When I was a little kid, my dad taught sociology at USU in Logan, Utah.  Pretty white- bread community, right?  Everyone LDS, everyone blond and blue-eyed?  I would never have known that.  Dad used to bring foreign exchange students over to the house every week, and while most of them simply visited and ate our American food, others enjoyed cooking their native dishes, and our home was often fragrant with the wonderful aromas of India, China, Polynesia, and Africa.  (He was also a huge football fan, so equally often we enjoyed the company of 1960s players such as Cornell Green and Merlin Olsen.)

This whole idea of breaking bread together has long been known as a way to break down cultural and racial barriers—when you eat with someone, friendship develops.  This is also a reason why ancient Jews were held to strict dietary rules that kept them from mingling with outsiders and ultimately marrying outside the covenant.  Let’s face it; when we eat together, we form bonds. Even today, we see disjointed families who never had dinner together, and missed the magic that happens when we simply share meals.

Fast forward to the present day.  I live in what appears to be a very white-bread suburban community, just outside Sacramento in California’s most conservative county.  It’s a neighborhood where you roll into your driveway, hit the button to raise the garage door, drive in, then then hit the button again to close it.  Few people spend much time in front of their homes.  Nobody sits on a front porch; they don’t exist.  Hired gardeners “mow, blow, and go,” for the most part.  I think I’m the only gardening hobbyist who putters out in front, pulling weeds and plunking annuals into flowerbeds.

So I decided something had to change.  We needed to get to know our neighbors, be better at fellowshipping, and simply be friendlier.  That’s when I remembered my childhood, and my dad’s insistence that we make friends with people vastly different from ourselves. I instituted a Weekly Sunday Potluck.  I took flyers to my ten closest neighbors, and announced at church that we would be hosting a potluck every Sunday evening from 5-7 pm (after meetings and before firesides).

“Are you crazy?”  “Boy are you brave!”  “That must be a ton of work!”  Wrong on all counts.  What’s crazy about opening your home and letting people see and feel what it’s like inside an LDS home?  What’s crazy about setting up a croquet game or Bocce Ball, and watching youngsters and their parents play together?  As for brave, I don’t think this tradition has required any actual bravery.  Oh, maybe for our two dogs whose ears get pulled on occasion by a toddler here and there (we lock the dogs up for their own sake, now).  And as for work, nothing is easier than a potluck.  Instead of slaving away to make a huge Sunday dinner with several courses I now prepare just one—a main dish.  We set out paper goods and folks show up with salads, sides, and desserts.  The variety is incredible and it’s always delicious because it’s usually someone’s best recipe.  Making one dish also costs less than cooking the whole feast, so we all save money in this tough economic time.  Clean up is a snap, too.

And, as it turns out, our neighborhood is not so homogenous after all.  I told you I invited my closest 10 neighbors, right?  Incredibly, this turned out to be Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics, Born-Again Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and of course, Mormons.  It’s like the United Nations.  Only we embrace and respect each other, share common interests, and form real bonds of friendship.  The food is pretty incredible, too.  Our Bosnian neighbors even opened a restaurant, and the Filippino neighbors are considering doing the same.

When my bishop and his wife were attending a conference in Hawaii, they prayed to be invited to someone’s house for Sunday dinner, so they wouldn’t have to break the Sabbath and go to a restaurant.  Their prayers were answered by an amazing  family who invited them to the very same tradition, a wonderful meal of authentic Hawaiian cuisine and dozens of family members who made them feel at home.  A big family actually works best for such a potluck, because you’re always guaranteed a crowd.  This family deliberately invites LDS tourists into their home, exactly so they can enjoy their vacation and their Sabbath.   I’ve found it’s also a wonderful way to welcome new members who haven’t fully unpacked yet, members who are looking at moving to this area, but are staying in a hotel, and missionaries whose dinner calendar hasn’t filled up yet.  I’m telling you, anyone can duplicate this tradition.

We average about 30 guests in good weather, a few less when it’s stifling hot or stormy.  But even when we only get a handful of visitors, it’s a wonderful, intimate evening.  Usually the ward members outnumber the neighbors, and that’s okay, too.  Neighbors are getting acquainted with more LDS people than just the Hiltons, and if they should ever visit our church, they’ll see several familiar faces.

Nothing would please me more than to see this idea duplicated in towns and cities across the world.  It’s easy, it’s economical, it’s a good missionary tool, and it’s a great way to unify a neighborhood.  I guess that makes it a win-win-win-win.           

Cruise with Joni and her husband, Bob, to Spain, Italy, and France May 12-19, 2012.  Double occupancy starting at only $659.00 per person!  See jonihilton.com for more information.

Joni Hilton has written 17 books, three award-winning plays, and is a frequent public speaker and a former TV talk show host. Her latest book, “Funeral Potatoes– The Novel,” has just been scheduled for publication by Covenant Communications. She is also the author of the “As the Ward Turns” series, “The Ten-Cow Wives’ Club,” and “The Power of Prayer.” Hilton is a frequent writer for “Music & The Spoken Word,” many national magazines, and can be reached at her website, jonihilton.com. She is married to TV personality Bob Hilton, is the mother of four, and currently serves as Relief Society President in her ward in northern California