During my junior year of college, I took a sociology class called “Food, Culture and Nature” that transformed my life trajectory and my call to ministry in a way that I could not have imagined. It introduced me to the issues of food and its relationship to the environment and health. Ultimately, it led to my interest in bridging food and spirituality, and more specifically in shaping my call to ministry to engage churches in food work.
A little more than a year ago, I discovered this thing called a dinner church. After hearing some buzz from a good seminary friend about this dinner church called Simple Church in Grafton, Massachusetts. After months of hearing Simple Church’s praises, I finally took the commuter rail there from Boston one evening for the service. My friend was interning for the church at the time, so I arrived a few hours early with her to help prep for that night’s service. We kneaded simple ingredients into beautiful, crackling, warm loaves of bread and set up the space with simple but elegant table cloths, candles, mason jar drinkware, and lights. I don’t now remember what the conversation of the evening was centered on, but I remember leaving that night feeling connected, alive, and inspired.
“This is what church can be,” I thought: a gathering of folks, invited to come as they are–not some neatened up or even a contrived authenticated version of themselves and to sing, pray, eat good food, share the Communion Bread of Life and Cup of Forgiveness, and have conversations about faith, life, society, and spirituality with people who think alike and people who think very differently.
This church is transformative. I have listened to the stories of friends and colleagues whose introduction to the Simple Church community was finally their welcome into a church that loved them and accepted them for who they are. What a gift that is. What a vision for the church, especially an institutional church that often measures success primarily by counting bodies in pews, regardless of how empty and devoid of prophetic challenge and action it might be.
My interest and excitement about the dinner church model centers on the dinner component. What an expression of beauty, creativity and sacramental depth to craft a worship service that puts the meal front and center, acknowledging the very elemental connection we humans, we adamah earth creatures have to food and earth. (Adamah is the Hebrew word for “Adam,” in case you’re not a bible nerd like me.) This is the church I have dreamt of belonging to since I first witnessed a middle schooler’s amazement while cutting lettuce during an internship I had at a school garden in Little Rock, Arkansas.
I am not on a leadership team or decision-making group, or even a regular attendee of Simple Church, since moving away from Boston this summer. However, in reflecting on my own call to food work and my experiences at Simple Church, I wonder about the possibilities for this dinner church community and dinner churches like it to infuse food-centric practices with an even more social justice focus.
Even speaking more broadly than the dinner church context, how can our intention to source food locally and sustainably intersect with the realities of time- and income-scarce working people?
Grow North Texas’ WIC Market is one such model. They partner with a Dallas WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) program, where women receive vouchers to purchase healthy food. Grow North Texas, an organization invested in food systems work that also advocates for small farmers in the North Texas area, partners with local farms to provide local produce at a subsidized rate for the WIC Market.
I’ve volunteered here a few times, and find myself consistently struck by the ability of this market to both meet tangible health needs in an accessible way, while also building community. I observe folks who cannot often access culturally relevant food light up when familiar peppers, purple potatoes, and collard greens were laid out before them. I observed volunteers with some Spanish-speaking ability, myself included, invited to practice those skills in a simple, tangible way.
And most powerfully, I saw community created, as neighbors and families interacted with one another and with volunteers in a mutual celebration of the earth’s harvest. A young Egyptian woman who could not speak English and whose Egyptian neighbor was assisting her at the market was able to get in touch with an Arabic-speaking organizer and coordinator of refugee communities who had recently relocated from Egypt and other parts of northern Africa.
I don’t think I can reasonably hold Simple Church accountable for not being a WIC market, and in many ways I think dinner churches’ power lies in creating a space for holy conversation, not necessarily explicit social justice action. Simple Church creates this space beautifully, and to hear the testimonies of folks whose lives have been changed by it is in and of itself a transformative experience.
This being said, as I reflect on these two powerful spaces, I can’t help but get excited and imagine the possibilities for the Christian food movement to continue expanding, to ask questions about how God is also moving in food policy, food justice activism, indigenous-led food sovereignty movements, and how ultimately our liberation from an unjust and less-than-wholesome food system is deeply connected to all of these movements. What an incredible time to do some hard but dirty (in the best earthy way) and integrative work!
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