Using red cedar 2×6 planks, Sarah Harmeyer and her dad are crafting a movement of love, and it’s making its way across the nation one road trip at a time
WORDS // Tricia Morgan Photos courtesy // Sarah Harmeyer
What can one invitation do? The answer is at the essence of Sarah Harmeyer’s business of making tables and hand-delivering them around the country all in the name of community building. Neighbor’s Table exists because Sarah has seen that big things happen when we extend an invitation. Big things have certainly happened for Sarah and Neighbor’s Table who have been featured in major media outlets including Real Simple magazine and Good Morning America. For Sarah, however, living out her purpose of loving her neighbor well and sharing that gift with others is the biggest accomplishment of all.
Back in March of 2012, Sarah had her first experience with what one invitation can do. She had just moved to a new city for a job she not only enjoyed but knew was going to help people. Yet, she sensed there was something missing. She was longing for connection that wasn’t easily fostered in her new position organizing fundraising galas for one of the largest children’s hospitals in the country. Through three months of deep conversations with her pastor friend, Eric, he invited her to consider shifting how she thought about work and asked her to reflect on when she felt most alive.
This invitation challenged Sarah to really think about how God created her. The best moments of her life had always been around a table or when she was serving people a meal. Eric helped shine a light on her gift of gathering people, which often allowed her to share her faith in real ways. He tasked Sarah more specifically with exploring how she might gather people in and outside of the church. She wasn’t sure what that would look like, but she spent the next several months praying about it.
Through this work of digging deep, Sarah reflected on a time in graduate school when she created an impromptu café on her front porch. She served lunch three days a week to whoever showed up. There was a mason jar on the table for friends and neighbors to pay what they could. Sarah recalls, “Something happened that year that I just loved. It was the very best year of my life.” She soon recognized that she needed to gather people at her home in Dallas too.
Sarah felt the pull to know more of her neighbors and to know them more fully. She recounts, “I just got really intentional about living in the way that God made me as a people gatherer.” She made a goal—a dream really—to serve 500 of her neighbors a meal around a table in her backyard. At that time, she didn’t have a table that would accommodate very many guests, and she only personally knew two neighbors. But Sarah didn’t let those small details get in the way.
“I just got really intentional about living in the way that God made me as a people gatherer.”
Instead, utilizing the Nextdoor app she started by mailing out over 300 paper invitations to her neighbors. She invited these near-strangers to bring a dish and a beverage to share a meal together. She asked her dad, Lee Harmeyer, to build a long farmhouse-style table. Lee had never built a table before, but he took on the challenge. She prepared for 30 guests to gather around her new gorgeous western cedar table, complete with a chandelier hung from an oak tree branch overhead.
Not only did 30 people walk down the path to Sarah’s home, but over 90 neighbors found their way to Sarah’s table that evening. “My heart got so big, and I realized people just wanted to be invited,” Sarah beams.
And so, Sarah kept on inviting her neighbors to her table. On Thanksgiving of that year, she met her goal of serving 500 people. Her 500th guest was a single mom with three kids who was not clued into the celebration that was about to happen. Sarah gave her a sash and crown to wear as all the guests were cheering and clapping. She remembers, “it was a blast and I knew that first year something had changed in my heart. I knew that what we were creating together around the table was something really special.”
“People just want to be invited.”
That something special happened through Sarah’s intentional practices of hospitality. “I do things a little bit different at my table,” she explains. “Before we start, I circle everyone up and introduce each guest by name even if we just met. There is something in all of us that wants to be seen—we want to know each other.” She then sets expectations for the evening: that first and foremost, they will do more listening than talking. “After hearing someone’s story, we can understand where they are coming from,” says Sarah, who often serves her meals family-style, so her guests can participate in the “awkward holding of the tongs and bowls.” Through these small shared experiences, Sarah creates an intimate space that cultivates connection. Guests often come to the table as strangers, who become neighbors, who become friends.
“I feel like I get to be the keeper of these stories,” Sarah humbly says. Part of the experience at her table includes having guests sign their names on the table itself. During one evening around her table, a new guest she did not previously know signed her name along with “I have a reservation for life.” Months later, Sarah’s friend who had invited this guest the first time, invited her again. The guest told Sarah that there was no place she would rather be than around her table, but that she was going through a divorce and had friends there to support her through this time. She asked if they too could join around the table.
With a “more the merrier” mantra, Sarah set this woman’s group of friends together at one end of the table. Sarah fondly recalls they were the last guests to leave that night—she was thrilled to have her friend with the “reservation for life” back at her table, this time with her friends “sitting elbow to elbow—that’s ministry,” states Sarah.
While still working full time during the second year, Sarah set a new goal for herself to continue her tables with a monthly budget of $75. She wanted to demonstrate that coming together around the table did not have to be expensive or elaborate. She learned to say yes when people asked if they could bring something.
Her friend Eric spoke again into her season of thriving and learning. He shared how he saw God receiving much glory around Sarah’s table, and invited her to consider if God had something for her outside of her own backyard. Neither Eric or Sarah knew what that meant, but Sarah began praying again.
Soon after, at a leadership conference, it donned on Sarah that there are other people who are wired like her—who are “people gatherers,” she says. “And actually, we were all given an invitation 2,000 years ago to love our neighbors. What if I could find those people who wanted to do that and needed a home base like I did?” While still at the conference, Sarah excitedly called her dad to see if he would be willing to make tables for other people. Lee agreed and soon they were both laughing over Lee’s new unofficial title, “Chairman of the Boards.”
By the end of 2013, Sarah, Lee and team started building tables for other people. Sarah came up with the name Neighbor’s Table with an apostrophe “s” because she is purposeful in conveying that each table belongs to every person who sits at it. Her team came up with the tag line “a Love Mission” which refers to the opportunity for each table to be a tool used for intentionally loving people.
“Sitting elbow to elbow—that’s ministry.”
As Neighbor’s Table began to receive more business, Sarah had a vision to spread her love mission to every state. To date, Neighbor’s Table has built over 200 tables and Sarah has hand-delivered most of those tables around the country. It gives Sarah great joy to be able to connect with the people buying a table and hear their stories. She tries to have the first meal with the family and friends around their new table, acknowledging, “I have a really inefficient way of doing business because it’s about people to me.”
Eventually, Sarah was faced with the reality that she could make Neighbor’s Table her new living. She knew God was growing it and she had a hard time keeping that realization down. “A time came when I had to make sure I was stewarding what God was doing with Neighbor’s Table,” Sarah explains, “and I came to this conclusion that probably anyone could do my fundraising job, but God had created this specifically for me.”
Sarah left her full-time job with a highly reputable national organization to pursue Neighbor’s Table while she was still developing her entrepreneurial skills. This leap was fueled by her trust in God who provided business-savvy people around her. When asked about her end goal with Neighbor’s Table, Sarah confidently responds it is “to keep loving people.” She expands, “there are two ways we can live. We can either live in love or we can live in fear, and by God’s grace, I have been able to live in love.” Through her business model, motivated by her desire to love her neighbors well, Sarah lives out 1 John 4:18, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”
One Christmas recently, a neighbor reached out to Sarah and told her that he knew her table was “a place for people who don’t have a place.” He asked her if she was having an “orphan Christmas” that year. Sarah thought to herself, well now I am. Joined with her neighbor and his son, they invited over more neighbors. Nine additional men joined Sarah and her family that day.
“There are two ways we can live. We can either live in love or we can live in fear, and by God’s grace, I have been able to live in love.”
While sitting in her backyard, one of the men pointed to the large letters lying against her fence that spelled the word L – O – V – E. He said “that is what it feels like here. It feels like love.” Reflecting on this Christmas story, Sarah shares, “We have more light inside of us than I think we realize. When we gather in Jesus name, people see it even when we don’t realize it or are even trying.”
Sarah says she is not in the “table business, but in the people business.” While she is grateful for the media attention and opportunities to share her story, “I don’t even consider those as success,” she says. “I think we associate success with something we have done,” but she challenges that notion with the little note she has posted in her bathroom as a daily reminder. “Strong God, I am watching you do it,” the note reads.
For Sarah, leaning into the way God made her “is success because there is joy that comes with that. I feel personally successful when I can do the things that come naturally to me, and I can serve people and love people with the way He’s made me.”
“I don’t know what success is, but I know what feels right.”
She continues, “I don’t know what success is, but I know what feels right: when we are doing the thing that God created us to do and using our gifts to honor him.”
Sarah has hosted over 3,500 people just around the table in her own backyard. Countless more have been hosted around the 200 tables she’s delivered to people around the country. Because she has inspired and equipped them to love their neighbors intimately, her tables have become an unstoppable love mission to neighbors near and far. From the invitation she received from a faithful friend to explore her God-given purpose, to the invitation she shared to her first neighbor around her backyard table, Sarah’s journey is a living testimony to how one invitation can change everything.
For more information about Sarah’s Love Mission and stories on the variety of ways the tables have been used to gather people, visit http://www.neighborstable.com/