By Ellen Painter Dollar
Until poor health curtailed her activities, my mother-in-law Ruby was the head of her church’s Bereavement Committee. We got a kick out of watching this woman—prone to rambling reminiscences offered from the ancient recliner where she spent about 80 percent of her waking hours—spring into high gear after receiving a phone call reporting that someone in the church had died. As far as we could tell, the sole responsibility of the Bereavement Committee was to provide bounteous food to grieving families. More than once, we overheard my mother-in-law berate some unfortunate committee member for not pulling her weight, leaving those poor families without paper products, for example, with which to serve the bereavement bounty.
We thought it was quaint, this idea that the most vital service a church community could offer its members during times of grief was platters of ham biscuits and pitchers of sweet tea. Once again, though, I’ve discovered that Ruby knows a thing or two about what’s important.
Last October, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a non-invasive, curable cancer. I knew I would recover fully, after some surgery and radiation (and I have). I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, to appear needier than I really was. But when I had to cancel a lunch date with our church’s assistant rector because of multiple doctors’ appointments, I let her know what was going on. She asked if I wanted her to pass my name on to our Casserole Ministry, so I could be free of cooking chores during my recuperation.
At first, I didn’t think I was sick enough to need this kind of help. My surgeries were straightforward, requiring only a couple of days to recover, during which my husband would be home to help out. The main side effect of radiation therapy is fatigue, but it often doesn’t kick in until the final days of the regimen. Besides, because I have a physical disability and chronic pain, a fair amount of fatigue is normal for me. Surely, the Casserole Ministry was meant for people who are really sick. Not for me.
Eventually, though, it became clear that others’ response to my illness and treatment was out of my hands. A good friend (not part of my church) started an account on a web site that allows people to sign up for specific dates to bring someone a meal if they are sick, recovering from surgery, just had a baby, etc. She publicized it through Facebook, and soon a dozen friends had signed up to bring my family a meal. When the assistant rector asked again about the Casserole Ministry, I directed her to my friend’s web site, and watched as church members snapped up many of the blank dates.
For seven weeks, I had people showing up on my doorstep most evenings bearing food. Some were good friends, but many of the church volunteers were people I had never formally met. A friend asked me if it felt weird to have people, especially near-strangers, feeding my family. Yes, it did. Particularly since I didn't look or feel terribly sick. It took some getting used to. But it turned out to be really welcome.
The hardest part of radiation treatment was its dailiness—every weekday for seven weeks. Having it smack in the middle of every morning made it hard to get anything done when the kids were at school. I could rarely get momentum going on writing, cleaning, or other necessities, because as soon as I got started, it was time for radiation, some vital errand, or school pick-up. The treatment did cause some fatigue, so my evenings were also pretty much shot. Being able to focus limited energy on things other than cooking, and give my full attention to the kids after school without having to think about dinner too, really helped.
People at church told me they were praying for my recovery and my family, and those prayers were welcome. But it was the regular, substantial, concrete delivery of meals that really made apparent how our church community was supporting us. Being on the receiving end of the Casserole Ministry also made me feel more at home at our church (which we’ve attended for a little over two years). Now, as I sit in my pew on Sunday mornings, I can look around and see half a dozen people whose names I now know, whose baking dishes are stacked in a corner of my kitchen, ready to be returned to their owners, and who spent a few minutes in my kitchen asking after my health and my kids’ well-being when they dropped off their goodies.
I am currently reading Sara Miles' memoir Take This Bread, which is an account of the author's Christian conversion and the centrality of of giving and receiving food (through both communion and a church-based food pantry) in that conversion. My own parish is planting a vegetable garden in a few short weeks, with plans to deliver fresh produce to a family service center in one of our city's poorest neighborhoods. I could wax theological about the symbolism of food for Christians, for whom sharing bread and wine is a fundamental act of faith. But instead I’ll just say that receiving food from my church community during my cancer treatment has done more to make me feel at home in this church, to feel the love of Christ made real through his people, than any adult education class, worship service, or potluck dinner ever has.
I now understand why my mother-in-law was so serious about making sure that grieving families had plenty of paper plates, pasta salad, and pound cake. It’s hard to know what to do in the face of someone else’s suffering. We want to fix it, and we can’t. So we are called simply to love them in whatever way we can. While food isn’t love exactly, it sure comes close.
(One practical observation for readers who have or are considering starting a Casserole Ministry in their church: Every meal was made with love, delicious, and welcome. But the most welcome foods were actually not casseroles. One family provided hand-breaded chicken cutlets, which I could cut up and call “chicken nuggets” for my kids, or serve on hamburger buns. A huge Greek salad provided me with an entire week’s worth of healthy lunches. Other ready-made green and fruit salads meant I could serve nutritious produce at every meal without the work of cutting it all up. Loaves of fresh bread, besides being delicious and comforting, gave the kids something to fill up on, even if the main dish was not to their liking. And meals that included brownies, cookies, or a small cake made for a celebratory vibe even on regular old weeknights.)
Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.