Friday, September 27, 2013

Let's talk about food: Building community one bite at a time

[Companions of the Round Table, 14th century]
For some 20 years two friends and I have gotten together at least once a year to celebrate our birthdays. Since 1995 we have called ourselves "Three Tall Women"--that was the year Edward Albee's play by that name came to Chicago. Our birthdays are in February, August, and November, but it doesn't matter. Whenever we can find a time to be together, it's birthday time.

For maybe 10 years two other friends and I have gotten together at least once a year, also to celebrate our birthdays. Since we are all Leos, we call ourselves the Lionesses, and we try to meet in August. This year, though, we're meeting in October. We do what we can.

When my friends and I get together, sometimes we bring gifts and cards, and sometimes we don't. Sometimes we meet in homes, and sometimes we meet in restaurants. Sometimes we share joys, and sometimes we share sorrows. But here's the one thing we always do: we eat.

Somehow, food and friends belong together. The word companion comes from roots that evoke shared meals. This is obvious in Latinate languages: "with bread" is con pan in Spanish, con pane in Italian, com pão in Portuguese, and cu pâine in Romanian. My companion is one with whom I break bread.

Breaking bread was a vital component of early Christian life and worship. Brand-new believers "devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.... [They] broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts" (Acts 2:42, 46).

Though we're talking about hospitality this week at St Barnabas, community is what's really important. By providing food and inviting guests, hospitable people help to make community possible. So do gracious guests who accept others' hospitality with gratitude and joy, and households who make a point of gathering regularly around the dinner table, and friends who meet for lunch or coffee.

I think St. Barnabas' mission statement is slightly defective. "We are a Christian community that is focused on Jesus Christ, centered in worship and prayer, and committed to participating in God’s mission of reconciliation in the world," it says. It would be more accurate if it said "centered in worship and prayer and shared food." We break bread together at the Eucharist, of course (we'll be talking about food as sacrament next week). But we break bread together at lots of other times too:
  • every Sunday during the fellowship time after liturgy
  • several weeks a year with the homeless who come for dinner, a place to sleep, and breakfast
  • the second Wednesday evening of each month at a parish potluck
  • with Foyer Groups and at international dinners
  • at Lenten soup-and-bread suppers
  • at the post-Easter Vigil feast
  • at a nearby soup kitchen and at a halfway house in Chicago
  • when parishioners are ill
  • when parishioners have a new baby
  • at all kinds of church celebrations
  • and sometimes, just because.
What does all this shared food do for us? I love this description from Eat With Joy by Rachel Marie Stone:
We sit at the same time, at the same table, acknowledging our common creatureliness as we stop and do the necessary, joyful business of eating. The same food goes into each of our bodies, building up our cells, becoming, quite literally, a part of each of us. We make memories and get a little closer to one another as we laugh and talk.... Sometimes table chatter is nonstop; sometimes the only sounds are of contented chewing. But regardless, we're mysteriously bound to each other in the breaking of bread.

This is part of a series of short posts especially for people who attend St Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, where I'm leading conversations about food on September 22, September 29, and October 6. I'll post about food every weekday between September 16 and October 4.

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