by Trista Kendall
“There is beauty in feeding others when you are spiritually or physically hungry yourself.” That’s a quote from chef Lisa Donovan that I ripped out of a magazine and pinned to the corkboard in my kitchen.
Church people are good at feeding – that’s the whole spiritual point of Eucharist, obviously – and in the gospels, Jesus is constantly eating, feeding, serving, drinking, fishing, or hanging out around the table (see: fishes and loaves, turning water to wine, and breaking bread with several Pharisees).
We have always been a food-centric faith, and I’m proud of that tradition of hospitality. But I’ve seen a disconnect – a big one – between how we feed ourselves and how we feed “others”.
I lived in Nashville when I was little, where my church participated in Room in the Inn. Churches are each responsible for hosting homeless guests one night each week, providing meals, showers, and a safe place to sleep. Different groups and families at our church would take the lead on hosting the evening meal. I must have been 6 or 7 the first time I remember my family cooking dinner. I don’t remember the main dish, which is funny, because I vividly remember the side dish – baked beans.
When I was little, I thought beans looked gross and tasted gross and just felt gross when chewing. So my 7-year-old self was HORRIFIED that we were serving baked beans to the men who came to Room in the Inn. I said something to my parents along the lines of “Don’t these people have enough problems? And we’re feeding them beans?” So when the time came for the dinner buffet, I took up a self-appointed station beside the beans and whispered to every single guy coming through line, “I’m sorry about the beans. There’s gingerbread cake for dessert.”
The night went well, despite the beans. The only other part of the evening I really remember is that after we cleaned up, my sister and I played checkers with a couple of the guys and one gentleman told me I reminded him of his daughter and gave me a flattened penny.
Cut to age 9ish: my Sunday school class and some parental chaperones signed up to provide that week’s Room in the Inn dinner. We cooked spaghetti and some anemic salad, and I remember thinking that we should have done better. Which was born out when someone’s mother came around and quietly told each kid not to worry, that she was ordering pizza for us so we didn’t have to eat “that”. And when she came around and bent down to tell me, I was serving up wilted salad to a guy in a black baseball cap. I saw his face; obviously he’d heard what she said. I was mortified and sick to my stomach. She wouldn’t let us sit with “them” while we ate, so I picked at salad and stared at my plate and avoided eye contact with any of the men at the other table. I cried when my dad came to pick me up.
Recall the words of Jesus in Mark 12:30-31 – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength…Love your neighbor as yourself.”
It was obvious to a nine-year-old that we can and should extrapolate “love your neighbor as yourself” to “feed your neighbor as yourself”. Feed your neighbor as yourself. Sounds easy. But think about it: how many times does a food drive turn into cleaning out the cans from back of the cupboard, the stale and weird and boring stuff you didn’t really intend to eat anyway?
Many others have written about the good work being done on food systems in our communities. Churches are participating in system-wide changes that provide more dignity through our food ministries, including in symbolic but incredibly significant ways: inviting food banks out of basements and into sanctuaries, welcoming soup kitchen diners in through the front doors instead of the back, hiring diners into long-term, paying jobs at the churches where they eat.
These changes are critical and must continue, but we also have to continue teaching the next generation of church cooks and servers and feeders that the food itself we serve to others is just as important as sharing an actual table. If we can go to the trouble to provide sacramental wine and grape juice, bread and gluten-free wafers to each other every time we share the Eucharist, we can go to the trouble to make sure the meals we serve our neighbors – all our neighbors – would be something nutritious and delicious that we would be delighted to serve our own families.
My grandparents led an activity in our family that left a big impression. In late fall, my grandparents would send my sister and me each an envelope with a $20 bill inside. On the envelope they wrote very explicit instructions for the use of this $20 bill, something like: “This money is for you, but it is not for you to keep. Your parents have agreed to take you to the grocery store to spend this money on items for the upcoming food drive at church. You can purchase whatever you’d like with it. Please let us know what you choose.”
I vividly remember these trips to the grocery store, separate and special trips where we each got the undivided attention of a parent for the sole purpose of spending $20 for someone else. I remember these trips taking forever (an impression confirmed by my parents while I was writing this essay), partially because I was constantly doing math to make sure I was within my budget and partially because my designated parent had the responsibility of teaching me as we walked the aisles: what “non-perishable” and why it was important; what foods are nutritious; how many different ingredients it takes to make a full meal; what kinds of foods I liked to eat that I’d want to share with others. I was so proud to walk down the aisle to the altar during the offertory with my own bag of groceries that I picked myself.
As we grow and mature, so does our giving. I know now that $1 in cash given to a food program reaches further than $1 in canned goods, because it allows food programs to purchase more food in bulk and pay for the transportation and coordination. And more to my point that the food itself matters, cash allows food program buyers to purchase items that their customers actually want, fresh produce, food that’s culturally relevant to their communities, and food that those of us cleaning out our cupboards might never think to provide, like salt or spices or cooking oil.
And when we have the opportunity to choose the actual food we feed our neighbors – all our neighbors – let’s pause to think it through. Let’s teach each other the true beauty in feeding others when we are spiritually or physically hungry ourselves. Let’s start by feeding our neighbors – all of our neighbors – as we feed ourselves.