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.

44. Tricky Balance:Food Idolatry vs Quick, We Need to Eat!

Actually, food preparation is an important concept to think about. We are currently experiencing a rash of new writings about food- what constitutes real food, why fast food threatens our health and way of life, why we should consider eating only locally grown foods, and why the planet cannot sustain food production for the anticipated population of nearly nine billion people worldwide by 2050. The latter chapters of this book attempt to address our individual connection and ease of access to food in the United States with issues of food and water scarcity in much of the rest of the world. For now, suffice it to say that our present national attention to food is, perhaps, overindulgent, and a fascinating study in human nature. On the one hand, we idolize food and nearly make food practice a religion. Food critics, cable cooking shows, and internet bloggers remind us that the world of food has its own language and rules, where food takes on godlike characteristics. On the other hand, such obsession-compulsion and misplaced fidelity is contradicted by a post-modern and relatively mainstream insistence that food be characterized, above all else, by convenience. We don’t have time to fuss over food, and we just want something to mollify our hunger. Somewhere in this dilemma, most of us find ourselves having to work very hard to find middle ground. We want to provide healthy food for ourselves and our families, and wish we could enjoy it together more often.

Unless you have hired help, procuring, storing, and preparing food is a necessity that someone in the home must meet on a consistent basis. Because nutritional needs across the age span can only be met by regular consumption of a variety of healthy foods, we need to understand the importance of the roles of planning menus, buying food, keeping ingredients on hand, and making time and space for preparing food in ways that are appetizing, wholesome, and, yes, even convenient. What’s more, most of us need to do this on a tight budget.

More often than not, this obligation falls to the adult women of a household, but more and more, men are taking an active role in a family’s food needs. One of my colleagues is a single father with two elementary school-aged daughters. The three of them have a routine for the four nightly meals they share each week. On Mondays after school, they go together to the grocery store. Each girl plans the menu for one meal and dad plans two. They walk and talk themselves through the store, picking out the ingredients they need for their planned meals. Once home, they work together in the kitchen to put foods away and begin the evening meal prep. It is not unusual for some of the girls’ friends to stay for a meal with this little family. Each meal begins with prayer, and dad intentionally guides the conversation around biblical stories and themes while having the girls replay the day’s events. My colleague says that this activity of planning, shopping for, making and sharing meals has bonded the three of them together like nothing else they do. In the process, the girls are learning to shop and compare prices, consider substitutes, store and prepare food, and entertain friends in their home over a shared meal.

No matter who sees to the food provision in your home, that person must be well-versed in the age-appropriate nutritional needs, within budgetary limits, of all of the family members being fed. And, if time is tight, it is a job that requires planning, discipline and creative thinking. In Post #45 we will begin to address where to start.

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

Photo credit:  K. Luymes

18. The Day Jesus Needed Tampons

Allow me to share a true story, one that dramatically changed how I think about the shared meal. I was at a conference in Seattle in June, about a year after starting to research the Christian practice of the shared meal. On this particular night a colleague and I headed down to the wharf to get some fish and fries. While getting on line at the outdoor fish stand, we were approached by a homeless woman for money for feminine products. A colleague replied,

“No.”

But, I was intrigued by the woman’s request because it had never once occurred to me how a homeless woman would manage such a monthly (and expensive) need. This woman was relatively young, maybe in her early thirties. One of her front teeth was chipped, and her skin showed obvious signs of vitamin deficiency, likely related to alcohol abuse. Not wanting to give her money for alcohol, I instead said,

“Well, let’s go to the drugstore and I will buy you what you need.”

The woman immediately argued that it was thirteen blocks to the nearest drugstore, and she’d just take the money. So I looked her right in the eyes and said,

“No, I am sorry. I can’t give you any money.”

She swore at me and walked away, and I found myself asking to her back,

“Wait a minute! Are you hungry?”

The woman stopped in her tracks, turned back toward me with a question on her face (my colleague did too), and I said,

“I am getting some fish and fries for supper. Do you want some supper?”

She eyed me with a suspicious hope and I managed to hold her gaze. Wrinkling up her forehead she said,

“Well, can I have a Coke too?”

I replied, “Sure. You can have fish and fries and a Coke, same as I am having.”

She came toward me then, and touched my arm with her filthy, scaly hands, and I all but recoiled from this physical contact that violated my “personal space”.[1] She quizzed me again,

“Can I have the biggest Coke they got?”

“Sure, the biggest Coke you can get”, I said.

By now we were next in line. I told her to go ahead and order, while informing the vendor that her order was on me. With great flourish and glee the woman ordered fish and fries and “the biggest Coke you got,” while ferociously tearing at the napkin dispenser to stuff napkins in her pocket. As I stepped up to make my order and pay, she turned to me, put her reeking arm around my shoulder and said,

“Lady, you made my day. You made my whole month. Thank you.”

And she skipped down the line to fill her Coke cup. Her order came up, and she snatched at the sack of food wondering aloud if she could get some ketchup. I motioned to the tables overlooking the harbor where ketchup bottles stood ready for the diners, but she said,

“No, no, no. I need them little packets of ketchup. Lots of ‘em.”

So the vendor gave her a fistful of ketchup packs while I filled my drink, looking around for my colleague amongst the tables, and, I admit, consciously hoping this woman would be on her way. And that’s what happened- she bounded off with her food and drink and napkins and ketchup. My colleague commented that I was an easy target while I sat down congratulating myself that the situation had turned out so well. I went to bed that night content that God had placed a need in front of me and I had responded with kindness and generosity- I had loved my “neighbor” in an uncomfortable situation.

I was awakened by a voice around 2:00 a.m. I remember sitting up in the bed, frightened that someone had broken into the room. I confirmed that I was awake, not dreaming and then felt a shadow at the end of the bed. There was Someone in my room; Jesus was here, and I had nowhere to hide. But very gently, he repeated the question with which he’d awakened me,

“What was her name?”

“What? Whose name?”

And the Lord distinctly and forthrightly said,

“What was the name of the woman at the fish stand?”

Then he was gone. And my heart welled up with an overwhelming wretchedness. I had bought a hungry woman some food. But, even after more than a year of study on the Christian practice of the shared meal, I had failed to dignify the woman’s existence by asking her name, and inviting her to sit with me for supper. I had not once thought to pray with her or for her, to introduce her to the Jesus I know and love. I had helped a hungry person by sharing some money. But I had not shared a meal or had any serious conversation about God and his love with this distressed woman whose hunger was deep. That night I learned that while hunger comes in all shapes and sizes, and that non-judgmental love for the stranger is itself a hard and strange calling, we are called nonetheless to attend to the needs of those Jesus places in our path, even when it means sharing an evening meal at close quarters around a table with someone who suffers from addiction and needs a bath almost as badly as she needs Christ. I gave her a meal, but I neglected to tell her about the coming Feast.

I tell you this story because we all need to think about why our participation in Christian practices like the shared meal may take much practice. It is precisely through these shared practices Christians can “more fully…understand their shared life of response to God’s active presence in Christ and to embody God’s grace and love to others amid the complexities of contemporary life”[2] and how they can help us think “about how a way of life that is deeply responsive to God’s grace takes actual shape among human beings.”[3] What is even more important, the Seattle story unveils a truth about who is welcome at God’s Table. “Jesus intentionally ate with those at the margins…as an act of compassion but also of empowerment.”[4]

Shared meals afford us all these things: helping us understand our shared lives together, responding to God’s presence, embodying his grace, and recognizing and empowering the marginalized. Thus, the shared meal constitutes a critically important practice we should not ignore, because they provide a regular opportunity for becoming “deeply responsive” to God’s provision, nourishment, and grace. If you have been hungering for a change in the way you live your life, start at the table. Invite. Prepare. Provide. Sit. Eat. Relax. Converse. Listen. Invest in the other lives at the table. Pray together. Read Scripture. Forgive. Reconcile. Be forgiven. Laugh. Cry. Share. Live. And, God himself will be amongst you to confirm its rightness. It is time to clear your table of mail and projects and get started. And, the best place to start is with Jesus himself, and the meals he shared.

[1] I say “personal space” because it is a cultural norm in North America to be physically “distant” from strangers, giving us the “power” to decide who is invited into that space. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day weren’t any different-they kept the “unclean” away and criticized Jesus for doing the opposite. I admit to being a little germ-conscious, so hugs, and touching, and handshaking have always made me uncomfortable. You can ask my friend Joy, the hugger. After five years I can now hug her back with enthusiasm. These things take practice!

[2] Dorothy C. Bass, “Introduction,” in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, ed. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002), p. 7.

[3] Craig Dykstra and Dorothy C. Bass, “A Theological Understanding of Christian Practices,” in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, ed. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002), p. 15.

[4]Smith, G.T., A Holy Meal: The Lord’s Supper in the Life of the Church, p. 77.