54. Meals Inside the City are Rarely Shared

My visits to several inner city churches revealed a universal focus on feeding ministries to the homeless and hungry, where programming ran the gamut from on-site meals to delivered meals, to organizing and sending church members out to already-established citywide programs as volunteers.  If you saw the photo posted with this post of a charitable serving of a Thanksgiving meal, you will notice what I have seen nearly everywhere I go: Servers are never eaters.  They are happy and smiling and gloved and “protected” from the “other” by keeping a physical barrier (usually a table or counter) between themselves and those accepting a meal.  And this is what a shared meal would NEVER do.

One large church of 800 members in metropolitan Washington, D.C. had multiple ongoing food ministries, many in partnership with established, reputable city social programs. Each was organized by different church lay-volunteers. For example, this church participated regularly in the interfaith SOME (So Others Might Eat)[1] ministry in the city by distributing a single casserole recipe once a month in an empty aluminum baking pan. Church members took home a recipe and pan, bought the ingredients, and assembled a casserole to deliver to church the following Sunday. The SOME ministry van picked up the casseroles to take to their dining room for feeding the homeless.

The church’s multiple youth groups and other adult small groups each took one Friday night (about three times per year) to prepare a hot meal and sack lunches for the homeless. The cost of the food is a line item in the church budget, and volunteers do the shopping and cooking. Once all the food is prepped, volunteers join a Grate Patrol[2] van and are driven to assigned intersections in the city to give the homeless one hot meal for the night and a sack lunch for the following day. This too was not something developed and run by the church-they simply tapped into the existing secular feeding infrastructure in the city. And although the church has its own large kitchen, its membership size makes on-site meal sharing challenging (not many churches have a dining area that seats 800). The church sponsors one banquet a year, at Christmastime, for its members. Seating is limited, and people have to sign up to reserve a seat.

When I asked why the church participates in different food ministries, the answers were fairly typical. One teen volunteer shared,

“These are people, just like us, so we talk to them. And sometimes they tell us their stories, and we just try to be kind to them. Respect their dignity, and all that. I would say that there’s more to it than just handing them food and giving them a bag lunch.”

An adult volunteer agreed,

“I agree. In my experience with GRATE Patrol, we still get to know the people because folks are at the same spot every time you go around. You begin to recognize faces, and they begin to recognize you. And they interact.”

This statement made me wonder; if you only participate three times per year, how are real relationships built?

In the end, hungry people eat, and the volunteers are a blessing in their own city.

The teen told me,

“We get a lot of ‘God bless you and thank you for what you are doing.’ Actually, at one point one fellow, who we recognize, we were going out around Christmas, and we were giving him his food, and he reaches into his pockets and says “Merry Christmas”, and he hands two of us candy canes. I got this great sense of gratitude. I get the great sense that they are… grateful.

But then she went on,

It’s really poignant, … we were driving down yesterday, on Great Patrol, and right there is the Capitol building, and we are literally serving these meals in the shadow of all these monuments, and art galleries, and everything, and it makes me think that, you know, we’re a first world country, and we can’t take care of our poor. It’s hard.”

In these ministries, food is shared. But the meal itself is not. One point that consistently came out in these interviews was the feeling amongst volunteers that this food is precious and needed by the homeless and hungry. Volunteers almost universally felt it would be like taking the food out of a hungry person’s mouth if they sat down to eat together. In essence, it was as if they thought, “I am not hungry. But, I can help feed the hungry with my care and time.”

This is where a faithful understanding of all the ways a SHARED meal as a Christian practice can make a significant difference in the lives of everyone involved.  Is it logistically difficult?  Yes!  Is it time-consuming?  Yes!  Is it personally risky?  Yes!  Uncomfortable?  Yes!   But it is the right way to eat.  We need to eat together.  And often.

In the next post (#55), we will take a concerted look at a church-initiated inner city meal program for the homeless.

Please leave comments in the Leave a Comment box.

~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

[1] So Others Might Eat. http://some.org/   March 31, 2016

[2] Grate Patrol. http://virginiasalvationarmy.org/ncac/files/2014/04/Grate-Patrol-One-Pager.pdf   March 31,2016

Photo Credit:  http://charity-matters.com/2013/11/25/the-opposite-of-full/#.WPYSlRiZN-U

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53. When your church building is used for the community meal-but you can’t say grace.

One of the most interesting models I came across was a semi-rural church of less than 50 members struggling to remain vibrant and relevant in a town in the throes of significant economic decline. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to maintain its 500-seat building, this small congregation sat squarely in the middle of a town with an increasing need for food ministries across the local population, most especially among the elderly and developmentally disabled. The church had a large institutional kitchen and dining capacity for 250, but, by themselves, they did not have the human or financial capital to begin and sustain a food ministry. So the church successfully partnered in plurality with others across the county- a local college, the Girl and Boy Scouts, the local home for disabled adults, and other churches (to name a few), today providing a community-wide free and shared meal twice a month supported by donations and grant monies, and directed by part-time paid personnel who are not church members. It has become quite a social scene. Meals are cooked by a chef, people get a plate of hot, home-cooked food served through the kitchen window. They eat together around beautifully set tables. Beverages and dessert are served by volunteers who also eat after everyone else is served. At the meal I attended, the mood was buoyant-people had come to eat, but, perhaps even more importantly, they had come to be together for an hour. In informal conversation, diners shared how much they look forward to getting out for this meal, for the companionship, hot food, and warm welcome it entails. They remarked that it was like eating a meal with a big family. And, the food was exceptionally good-nothing “institutional” about it.

But, by definition, this was not a shared meal as Christian practice where people eat around the table together in God’s presence giving voice and assent to that presence.  This is because the plurality of the partnerships essential for the program to survive also necessitated that all faith-based activity, including grace before the meal and a sharing of the gospel were unacceptable to most of the sponsors. So, it is a meal that is shared by the community in a beautiful old church building where explicit references to the coming kingdom of God are muzzled, and the church members can only hope that coming to the church for a meal will encourage more people to investigate the church itself. An organizer, who is also a Christian but not a member of any church, said that religion is off the table at the meals because,

“I don’t want to exclude anybody. I don’t want the conflict. And it hurts me to do that, but I’ve seen it before. I have to pick sides. There’s people who told me, this is the first time they have been inside of a church. Could that be a start?”

Another interesting phenomenon at this church is that most of the church’s members do not really participate – they don’t support the program as volunteers, they don’t come to share the meal, and they are somewhat threatened that “outsiders” are using “their” church. One significant reason is that they are elderly themselves. But, the real threat is that the church membership has dwindled from 500 to 50 since its heyday in the 1960’s.   It is easy to see how these elderly members conflate the two issues in their minds- that their own congregation faces extinction, and that the hospitality of a warm and sincere welcome to the “other,” including the developmentally disabled, the poor, and the non-Christian elderly, always has an element of “stranger danger”.   They would very much like to grow their membership, but not necessarily if it threatens the church’s historical way of life.

Sadly, it is not uncommon for members in established churches to oppose opening the door to people considered undesirable in the world’s eyes. Such hospitality is viewed as a threat to the shared history and family-like “feel” within the congregation. The assumption is that needy outsiders will never be able to contribute to the larger community, a belief sown in our human refusal to recognize the dignity and worth of all people made in the image of God. But, as Christine Pohl graciously reminds us,

“[People] not valued by the larger community are essentially invisible to it. Hospitality can begin a journey toward visibility and respect… Deep sensitivity to the suffering of those in need comes from our ability to put ourselves in their position, and from remembering our own experiences of vulnerability and dependence… If, when we open the door, we are oriented toward seeing Jesus in the guest, then we welcome that person with some sense that God is already at work in his or her life.”[1]

It is difficult for many of us to even think of sharing a common meal with people on the other side of our doors, people with whom we can’t conceive of sharing the Lord’s supper, people that we, if we are honest, don’t want around our children. We must overcome our fears. If we truly understand the depth of our own sin, the magnitude of God’s mercy in Christ, then we cannot help but become merciful to others. It is the way of the disciple outlined by Jesus in the Beatitudes. We don’t feed the needy stranger out of our own moral superiority, but out of our poverty of spirit. It is our own bottomless neediness for God that should drive our desire to share His kingdom with the stranger.

In post 54, we will begin looking at some of the shared meal practices of the inner city churches I interviewed.  Stay tuned!

~J.A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

[1] Pohl, C. Making Room, 1999. pp 62, 65, 68

 

 

52. Food Ministry: what do other Churches do?

As I introduced in Post #51, I set about to interview several churches to determine some common denominators of typical church food ministry, and if any of them “fit” the definition of the Christian practice of a shared meal. It was revealing to study the people involved in the food ministries, most easily categorized as lay/volunteer vs. professionalized. These factors regarding who is planning and implementing each program, who is serving and sharing meals, how the programming is funded, the number of person-hours required, and the ownership and sustainability of such endeavors are complex and all overlap, as the following diagram illustrates.

Screen Shot 2017-04-04 at 11.34.58 AM

As you can see, Christians engage in a multitude of food-related programs that are all motivated by a sincere desire to help others and their community. Let me emphasize that these are all good things born out of our love and compassion for our neighbors. Each type of food program has a common set of characteristics that include type of program, its ownership, delivery, general acceptance and sustainability within the congregation, and its basic organization, either as specifically Christian, a plurality of faiths, or a partnership with secular organizations in which Christianity is not the primary driving motive of the service.

According to the interviews, food-related ministries can be codified into one of four basic types: served (SV), shared (SH), a combination of served and shared (S&S), or other (O). The following table illustrates what I found.

                                                                                                                                   

     SH

       SV

    S&S

       O

Food Pantry, Food Truck, Freezer Ministry– food is distributed on site to take home           x    
Meal Ministry-a hot meal on site         x         x        x  
Food Delivery– a meal, sack lunch, or grocery bag is delivered               x    
Gift Cards for Food           x    
On Site Garden or Urban Farm or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)              x
On Site Farmers’ Market              x
After School and Summer Child Nutrition           x    
On Site Food-related Education/Job Training              x
Small Group Meals Ministry         x      

Many churches I visited had multiple food ministry activities going on. An in-church potluck or picnic, and meals amongst the small groups formed out of the membership (e.g. a small group or Bible study) were common. But, it was rare to find a church in which members and strangers actually sat down and shared a meal on a regular and frequent basis.       

Most of the programs I studied began with one person’s vision. As programming is wont to do, a visionary sees a need and has an idea, then seeks support, both in human and capital resources, and, before you know it, a program is born! After initial growth and success, sustainability is threatened if the original stakeholder fails to organize and nurture reliable and committed human resources (i.e., if there is insufficient buy-in and ownership amongst a majority of the church’s members), if the vision becomes stagnant, if the need declines, if the original visionary burns out or leaves, or if the financial means of the originating church body declines.

At this juncture, I observed two different paths most churches take. In the more successfully sustained programs, there was a natural evolution from volunteer visionary, to paid part-time oversight, to the creation of a full time paid director, a difference I labeled as lay-volunteer vs. professional-paid oversight. We have all witnessed the other path in which the visionary leaves or burns out, and the program is left withering on the vine without a champion.

In Post #53, I will begin to describe some of the churches I interviewed along the way. Stay tuned!

~ Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

51. Reaching In, Reaching Out: Meals, Food, and Church

I have taken a long hiatus from the blog to relax, rewind, refresh, and rest in Scripture this winter.  Thanks for sticking with me!  Here is the beginning of the final chapter of this e-book about shared meals as a Christian practice.  This, and the following weekly posts can help nudge you to think about the food ministry at your own church.

There are multiple approaches to food and hunger through food ministries in the North American Church. All do good things. Some give out food from a pantry or a cash gift card to a grocery store. Others prepare or organize a meal to feed new parents, the ill, the grieving, or the aged. Still others use a meal for evangelical purposes, always letting participants hear that God loves them. And some intentionally create a formal atmosphere more similar to the original practice of marrying the meal with worship and teaching. Some churches work alone, others together, often in partnership with local secular organizations.

I interviewed stakeholders from multiple and different ministries in an attempt to describe the scope of mission and vision where meal ministry is concerned, and to get a sense of how that is working out in practice.[1] Certainly, feeding the hungry is an action believers are called to do, no strings attached. But my visits were predicated on the desire to know if feeding someone a meal rather than sharing one around the table together were practices with different motives, possibilities, and results.

Going in, my intuition said that feeding people can become a community’s collaborative way of loving neighbor without necessarily bringing Jesus and the kingdom of heaven into the shared conversation. And this phrase shared conversation is critical. If the shared meal as a distinctive Christian practice was and is always about being around the table together in God’s presence, and giving voice and assent to that presence, then programs in which one can stop in to pick up some food (no shared meal), or come in and be seated and served by church members (a meal served but not shared between visitors and believers) is fundamentally different from the shared meals of the first century church.   The people providing the meal go away feeling good about themselves, about having met the physical needs of their neighbors, but with little to no acknowledgment that we are all hungry and in need of God’s grace-filled presence and provision, no different than my experience in Seattle with the unnamed and hungry homeless woman. (see post #18)

In essence, it is a fulfillment of the second commandment that may give little or no regard to the first, and as a practice it is not distinctively Christian because it misses this point: we should know the names of the hungry and share with them a meal and Jesus’ favorite mealtime teaching that the Kingdom of God is at hand. We must remember that a Christian practice is only a practice when it is done together, regularly, and with a focus on the presence of God and his kingdom. The meal, then, is meant to be an intimate shared practice, one which most of us must admit is an uncomfortable proposition because adding strangers into the mix intrudes on our personal space and plays on our insecurities.

It might be easy to become defensive at this point and insist that the shared meal of the first century church was shared among believers. But scholars contend that although the early church did meet for worship and teaching and the breaking of bread together, all were welcome to eat and hear and see God’s goodness, believers and unbelievers, Jews and Gentiles alike. These meals did feed the hungry, but they were not focused first and foremost on that goal. The emphasis was (and still should be today) on Christ and the kingdom.

Moreover, the distinctive Christian practice of hospitality is at play in the shared meal. The four components of hospitality outlined by Amy Oden elegantly describe how these meals should proceed. First, the greeting and welcome. Second, nourishment and dwelling together (food and Word). Third, a challenge to know God and live a life which pleases him (this is a most important component of the practice that is usually missing when a meal is not shared). Fourth, the sending back into the world fortified with Word and prayer as well as a full stomach. And so I set out to do this research because I wanted to find out what people and programs are doing and why.

Over the course of two years, I met with stakeholders, visionaries, pastors, and lay members of various churches-inner city, rural ones with membership challenges, and suburban ones with lots of resources. Several overlapping program characteristics emerged from these interviews, including the type of program and individuals carrying out the programming, as well as the ownership, faith basis, and sustainability of each program. My main goal was to try and identify the commonalities and substantive differences across programs, and see if the shared meal-as a Christian practice- was an ingredient in the recipe of various church food ministries.

In Post 52, we will begin to survey the themes that arose from these interviews. Stay tuned!  As always, your comments are helpful as I continue editing the book.  Use the LEAVE A REPLY box below!

~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

[1] As part of the formal research process, interviewees were required to give written consent to be interviewed in exchange for guaranteed confidentiality.

#30. Remembering Jesus at the Table

As we get to the end of this chapter on the meals of Jesus, we find him celebrating Passover with his disciples.  This final meal of Jesus is perhaps the meal with which we are most familiar (Luke 22:7-38). Here we have Jewish pilgrims streaming into Jerusalem for Passover, a feast calling them to remember their salvation from their slavery in Egypt, and how God’s curse on the firstborn of the land passed them over when they sprinkled the blood of the sacrificed Passover lamb on their doorposts. In this regard, it is a memorial meal.

For Jesus, who repeatedly told his disciples the hour was not yet come during their three-year ministry, the hour has, finally, arrived. And Jesus explains to them how eagerly he has looked forward to this meal. He wants to celebrate together with his disciples one last time before he must suffer the pain, humiliation, and abandonment of the cross.

And so, they prepare and eat a Passover meal[1], in which Jesus instructs the disciples to remember him when they eat the bread and drink the wine at their meals. What will they remember?

  • They will remember the times Jesus healed people suffering from leprosy, bleeding, demonic possession, and paralysis.
  • They will remember his teachings to become servants working tirelessly on behalf of the hungry, poor, and vulnerable.
  • They will remember their own terror the night of a storm at sea, and the authority with which Jesus swiftly stilled the waters.
  • They will recall the many meals they shared with him, and the way he confronted sin and self-righteousness with repeated calls to repentance and humility.
  • They will remember that he told them about how these things (most specifically his life, death and resurrection) had to happen to fulfill Scripture.
  • They will remember this last meal with him, and that Jesus, as Lamb of God, was sacrificed to atone for their sin and reconcile them to the Father.
  • They will remember the pain of their denial and unbelief, and the wonder-filled joy that came when, just before returning to God, Jesus “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45).
  • And, they will do this remembering together over a shared meal. “Jesus wanted his disciples and everyone who came after him to remember what they had together… what it meant to be together. How the things he wanted them to do could not be done alone.”[2]

When is the last time you sat at a meal with loved ones and guests and spent some intentional time remembering the Person and work of Jesus Christ?

~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

Note: It is my prayer that you are able to savor these meal stories, and that, in time, you will begin to feel the Holy Spirit nudging you to make your meals count.  Praying over the “remember” bullet points above is a good starting point.  And, as always, if you like what you read, please go to the LIKE and SHARE buttons inside the blog and CLICK!!

[1] Because of differences between the Gospel narratives, it is not certain that this meal took place on the Thursday night of Passover week, as is often assumed. I prefer to treat the Last Supper as a formal Passover meal.

[2] Nora Gallagher, The Sacred Meal (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), p. 24.

28. Your Table MINISTRY

Not surprisingly, this latest meal (see post 27) infuriates the Pharisees and teachers of the law to the point that they begin to organize a hostile opposition to Jesus. Likewise, Jesus escalates his attacks in Luke 12 and 13, publicly warning followers about the hypocrisy and murderous intent of the Jewish leadership. Jesus speaks with urgency of a coming day in which there will be a great feast in the kingdom of God, and exhorts people to humbly repent and be faithful.

Not long after this, Jesus attends a Sabbath meal at the home of a prominent Pharisee. For the Jews, the Sabbath was a feast day, so this is no ordinary meal. “Whereas Jesus was explicitly invited to the earlier meals, now, although an invitation may be implied, none is narrated, as Jesus merely “went into the house”” (Luke 14:1).[1] Can you imagine the scene? These leaders have been plotting to permanently incapacitate Jesus’ growing influence amongst the Jews, and here he is, on a Sabbath no less, showing up uninvited for dinner and playing, supposedly, right into their scheme.

Luke leaves out details of the meal and proceeds straight to the events of the after-meal symposium/discussion. Knowing that the Pharisees and lawyers are watching him carefully, Jesus looks up to find a man with dropsy[2] standing in front of him. It is hard to think otherwise that this is a setup, especially because this unclean man appears in front of Jesus in the center part of the dining room reserved for the activities of the symposium, rather than at his feet where bystanders were tolerated. By way of providing a controversy for the after-dinner symposium, the host may have deliberately encouraged the man with dropsy to go stand in front of Jesus in hopes Jesus would dare to heal on the Sabbath.

In ancient times, dropsy was thought to result from a habitual overindulgence in food and alcohol, in other words, of uncontrolled appetite.  Luke implies a connection here between the physical greed of the sick man and the moral greed of the diners, portraying Jesus as the medium for healing in both cases. First Jesus heals the man with dropsy while arguing that anyone would rescue even an imperiled ox or donkey on the Sabbath. And, if that’s the case, why should saving a man be any different?   Interestingly, after Jesus heals the man and sends him away, the other diners uncharacteristically refrain from comment. Either they are sullen or bewildered by Jesus’ authority or both.

Again, Jesus uses a meal to teach about salvation as he masterfully takes advantage of the others’ silence to introduce his own after-dinner controversy (which implies he usurps the host’s authority). He directly challenges the way these men jockeyed for positions of honor at the table at the start of the meal, confronting the moral greed which compels a person preoccupied with status to manipulate others for the sake of social standing. Moreover, Jesus challenges the host to rethink his typical invitation list, urging him to invite people on the margins of society instead of his elite, status-seeking, self-righteous peers. Jesus teaches them that the great banquet in the kingdom of God will include people in desperate need of healing, those who are poor, crippled, blind and lame (Luke 14:21). What his dining companions fail to understand is that they themselves are “the spiritually poor-with nothing to offer for [their] salvation; the spiritually crippled-made powerless by sin; the spiritually blind-unable to see the truth about Jesus; [and] the spiritually lame-unable to come to God on [their] own.”[3]

These are lessons taught and learned at the table that should make us consider what we believe, and how we lead our own lives as a result of that belief. In a sense, our meals and our behavior at meals reflect what we believe, especially about Christian community and hospitality, as well as our attitude toward people on the fringes of society. The truth is, when we invite others to our table, we usually do so with the mindset of entertaining them rather than sharing the food of the gospel and its power to transform lives. We are hesitant to embrace total strangers at our family table, finding ourselves far more comfortable including only people we know well, and who happen to be a lot like us.

Perhaps it’s time to view our table as an active place for ministry. Do you know people who seem unable to come to God, blinded to his truth, or determined to save themselves all by themselves? Invite them over for a meal and watch God work!

~ Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

[1] John Paul Heil, The Meal Scenes in Luke Acts: An Audience-Oriented Approach, p. 99.

[2] Today, we’d call this edema, or generalized swelling of tissues related to a host of causes, including heart and renal failure, liver disease related to abuse of alcohol, sodium retention, and abnormal blood pressure. For example, women with breast cancer who have lymph nodes removed often suffer from lymphedema, a significant swelling of the arm related to fluid obstruction in the lymphatic pathway.

[3] Tim Chester, A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, and Mission around the Table, p. 79.