Published March 26, 2016 in the Ames Tribune
For the last five weeks my church came together on Wednesday nights for a meal, book study, and meditation or choir practice. This was all part of the Christian church season called Lent, a time when we prepare for Easter. As I wrote previously, the book was about the work and responsibilities of white Christian churches who profess a desire for racial equality in the world. The discussion each week was so rich that we barely made it half-way through. At times we disagreed with the author’s premise, at others we were surprised by our ignorance around, for example, the Black Power movement. In smaller groups I heard expressions of defeat and guilt. I think the experience generated more questions than it did answers.
But the number one question I was asked each week had nothing to do with racism, structural inequalities, or unearned advantages. It was, “Are you going to eat?”
The meal that proceeded our class was a soup potluck. Meaning, each week church members signed up to bring a soup. They also brought bread, olives, pickles, peanut butter, and jelly. There was always just enough for the 60–80 people who came to feast and visit.
For me, this was a tremendous opportunity to get visiting time with members of my community. After leading the group in prayer, I went from table to table to check in with everyone, see how their weeks had gone, get a review of the night’s offerings, and whatever else floated to the surface. I made a couple of PB&Js for kids and handed out milk. I had a wonderful time.
I was able to do this because I ate before everyone arrived.
I was, at first, surprised that anyone noticed that I wasn’t supping soup. “Don’t worry about me,” I said the first week, “I don’t let myself go hungry.” I didn’t want anyone to worry about me, I didn’t want to be the focus of anyone’s concern. In fact, that is much of what being a pastor is about: directing attention away from my own self and toward the divine. A huge part of my formal training was how to essentially empty out in order to be fully present for others. So, as much attention as I command of a Sunday morning in worship, it is all in the service of nurturing the souls of others toward God’s beloved community.
But people kept asking, both that night and each Wednesday that followed. Sometimes I heard a tone of curiosity, sometimes a bit of worry. In the end what I really heard was love. “Are you going to eat?” is just a degree away from “Are you hungry?” And it is hunger that is so often at the center of a life of faith, be it spiritual hunger or literal.
In my branch of the Christian family tree we put significant emphasis on service. Within my local church, that can mean fighting for affordable housing or taking flowers to the sick and home-bound. But more often than not it is about food. On the Sundays when we gather for Holy Communion (a remembering of Jesus’ final feast), we bring canned and dry goods for the Food at First pantry. Many members deliver meals for Meals on Wheels or cook them for the Emergency Residence Project.
Some of us at my church know what it means to go hungry, literally. Many of us know the experience of spiritual hunger. All of us recognize that, as God has named so often, we need each other to be able to respond to both.
Which is why I agreed to continue our book study beyond Lent with one caveat: Each of us participating would have to commit to taking personal or collective action to address racism. Just as we actively choose to respond to hunger, we must do the same with racism. To simply study the problem and do nothing is, to me, a sin. I know from personal experience that it is easier to bake a lasagna for a hungry family than it is to confront the massive system of ideology, structure, and funding that perpetuate racism. But hunger is there, too, a hunger created by discrimination.
I hope that you have people in your life asking if you are going to eat, who care about the hungers of your own body and spirit. And I hope that you have a community with which to feed and be fed. Even though it is at times a challenge, I know I could never be filled or fulfilled without both.