There are people in this world so hungry,
that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.
My story begins in a small building shaded by a dozen towering pine trees. The Friendship Center at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church is a nurturing community that promotes the wellbeing of adults marginalized by poverty, substance abuse, and mental illness. Acting as an outreach ministry of the Episcopal Diocese, Holy Comforter serves over 30,000 meals every year and hosts nearly a dozen recovery programs including art, gardening, yoga, bingo, group therapy, and bread baking.
The first time I toured the church I felt I had stumbled upon sacred ground. The image that comes to my mind is of the “thin places” in Celtic spirituality where God is a tangible presence in the air around you. Whatever else, this feeling was delicious.
The smell of cooking eggs, sugary pastries, and cheap coffee greeted me when I walked through the door of the parish hall my first Tuesday morning on the job. Right from the beginning my time at Holy Comforter was characterized by food. Breakfast is the most hectic and disorganized part of the day at Holy Comforter. Dozens of day participants unload from vans and jockey together in line to satisfy their hungry stomachs. Between the occasional explosions of noise and the ire of kitchen volunteers, every meal holds the tightrope walker’s tenuous line between order and chaos.
I often spent breakfast swapping stories with whoever was at the table. On one memorable Tuesday morning I sipped my weak, sugary coffee while listening to the gentleman sitting across from me explain he had written the original script to the movie Mortal Kombat. He finished shoveling down his eggs and toast, stood up to get thirds. I stopped him. “When was the last time you ate?” I asked, trying to mask my concern and naiveté by laughing. “Sunday night,” he choked through a mouthful of toast. I stared at him, mouth open in astonishment.
As I would soon learn, food security and living stability are among the central issues associated with mental health care. In theory, the privatization of the mental health care system in the 1980s seemed reasonable: personal care and nursing home facilities could compete for the benefit of their customers by increasing the standard of care, quality food, and personal space. In practice, however, privatized care has led to a system characterized by horrifying stories of neglect and failure.
During my meals at Holy Comforter I would often hear stories about cockroach infestations, chronic hunger, and sexual violence in care homes. It wasn’t until I started making pastoral visits to these homes that I witnessed first-hand the cramped bedrooms filled with unwashed, bloated bodies strewn over child-sized beds. In place of stable, warm, and welcoming homes, care-home residents are often kept in the worst neighborhoods, served the cheapest food, and have no space to call their own. While these conditions are not common to all care homes, there is no denying that the vulnerability of this population has become a product, with for-profit companies cutting corners on everything from cleanliness to nutritious food. As my Holy Comforter supervisor once told me emphatically, “It’s an epidemic.”
As I served those at Holy Comforter I soon realized that the epidemic was one of countless unheard stories, and stomachs that remain unfilled. In the face of such widespread suffering, I wonder: can the joint acts of eating and story telling help us reclaim our connection to the voiceless in our communities? Can eating together be an act of justice, an act of healing?
In Christianity, sacramentalism refers to the ritual tradition bridging the distance between humanity and God through the material elements of bread and wine, water and oil. It embodies the subversive wisdom that God may be touched, tasted, and encountered in the world around us. As my mentor Susan Sides says, it is a way of making love visible. When taking communion we symbolically eat the flesh of Christ at a common table: the food becomes a part of us to represent the presence of God in our very bodies. This is among the most profound ways the church expresses the common humanity, dignity, and worth of all persons. As Jennifer Ayres explains in her book, Good Food:
At the center of the Christian tradition sits a table. It was around tables that Jesus taught, loved, shared with, and challenged the disciples. At mealtimes, Jesus and the disciples shaped a beloved community, a community that understood sharing, hospitality, and attention to material needs to be at the heart of their life together. Even now, when the beloved community gathers around the table, we affirm that we receive sustenance, we build relationships, and hear a challenge to seek flourishing in the world. (p. 55)
In the sacraments, the Christian tradition creates space at the table, literally and figuratively, for all to come and be affirmed of their personhood. It is within the wisdom of this ancient ritual where I learned the power of bread baking.
My first task at Holy Comforter was to continue the work of my predecessor by teaching a “meditative bread baking” class to the Wednesday night participants. While I had kept up a regular discipline of meditation in college, I had never so much as turned on an oven in my life. On a warm afternoon in September my first class met in the musky parish hall beneath the chapel. I carefully set up everything we would need as my class gathered together around the white plastic table that would serve as the canvas for our culinary art. After exchanging names and introductions we began the class by mixing yeast with hot water until the solution turned murky brown. Though it took only a minute to mix together, I let the time draw out, offering space to focus and become present to the task at hand. Next came five teaspoons of sugar and one teaspoon of salt, followed by another round of mixing. We added a pinch of vanilla, a dash of milk, and a splash of melted butter for good measure.
With the core ingredients mixed together, next came the fun part. I poured two cups of flour in each bowl, handed out whisks, and stood back as hands vigorously stirred the mixture into sticky, powdery goo. When everything looked as it should we poured the dough out onto cutting boards and began kneading.
The room would get quieter when we started touching the dough. One could feel the creative tension building in the air. More than a dozen hands meditating through touching bread.
As enlivening as it is to feel the warm dough slide through one’s hands, there’s no denying it: kneading is a messy business. Celebrating and embracing messiness is one of the important lessons our class learned together. To live with mental illness is to live in a messy world — a world where the stability, acceptance, and well-being are perpetual uncertainties. Yet even so, the story carved into each person’s palms helped shape the mess into a thing of beauty and sustenance.
A significant amount of baking bread is grounded in waiting and anticipation. After kneading, dough needs an hour to rise before being flattened, rolled into a loaf, and left to rise again for another hour. As we waited we would often sit around a table, swapping stories and the occasional corny joke. Later I would learn that bread gets filled with air as it rises. Perhaps it was the breath from our stories that made the bread rise. Or maybe it was just growing hunger for the feast ahead.
When the hot loaves came out of the oven, dozens of day participants lined up outside the window, hands eagerly outstretched. I’m fond of Sara Miles’s description of communion: “the feast showed us how to re-member what had been dis-membered by human attempts to separate and divide, judge and cast out, select or punish. At that Table, sharing food, we were brought into the ongoing work of creation” (Take this Bread, pp. 76-77). During those months of meditative, bread-making communion in Atlanta, I encountered an altogether transforming version of the Christian sacrament of communion. I formed, tasted, and shared resurrecting stories with each fold and press of the dough. Each small bite of our shared creation began to heal the wounds inflicted by a broken system that denies the personhood of countless lives.
I learned on those Wednesday afternoons that ministry involves working with people of all sorts, sensitivity to the deeper currents of life, and just plain getting your hands dirty. In an age defined by the severance of relationships, our stories provide leaven to nourish the world around us. As we baked our bread and our stories, we learned to listen, share, draw the circle even wider, and nourish one another while being sustained by God. In storytelling resides the remarkable invitation to nourish and be nourished, to see and be seen. The simple act of recalling a story and listening to a story resounds with affirmation of one another’s personhood. The memories tying us to community and creation remind us that our choices carry consequences. We are all tied together in the sticky dough of relationship. Everyone hungers, and everyone desires to be fed, recognized, and loved.