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Justice is on the menu


Tough issues become palatable when served on a plate

By Derrick Weston | Presbyterians Today

The Rev. Sam Chamelin and the Rev. Anna Woofenden co-host The Food and Faith Podcast.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Bedford Presbyterian Church in Bedford, New York, spent the summer and fall of 2020 reading and studying issues of race. But as the year came to end, they began asking, “What’s next?” This led to the question: “How about a course on food and race?”

For the past two years, my friends — the Rev. Sam Chamelin, a minister in the United Church of Christ, and the Rev. Anna Woofenden, a newly ordained Episcopal priest — have co-hosted the “Food and Faith” podcast. Over that time, they have spoken with pastors who work on farms, host dinner churches and run community gardens. They have spoken to academics, food justice advocates and authors about the intersection of what we eat and what we believe. I joined them about a year and a half ago, first as an editor of the show and then as a co-host. As we’ve gotten deeper into conversations with our guests, we discovered that food touches on all of the justice issues that we care about. From climate change to immigration, to wealth inequality, and yes, racial justice — all of these issues have a food component.

But here’s the thing about food. It’s incredibly unifying! At least it can be. Everybody eats. Everybody has some investment in where food comes from. Food is the primary way that we connect with Creation, which means that food can be a way to connect us to God, our neighbors and our own histories. Educating the church on the ways that food interconnects us has become a personal passion, and I have been encouraged by the ways that food becomes a sort of backdoor to hard conversations.

Over the course of six weeks, I introduced the members of Bedford Presbyterian Church to authors, activists, chefs and farmers working to bring healing to their communities by bringing healing to the food system. We had hard conversations like why we need to use the term “food apartheid” instead of “food desert” — the former suggesting a human system, the latter suggesting a natural occurrence. We talked about how the foods of West Africa influenced the foods of the American South and ultimately became the roots of what we know as soul food. We talked about the environmental racism that leads to people of color feeling more disconnected from natural spaces because of histories of oppression. And we talked about the organizations that are working to create communities that are creating food systems that are more just.

As the course came to an end, we recognized the ways a system that makes good food accessible for some at the expense of the dehumanizing labor of others ultimately is a system that poisons all of us. We began to think through how the way we eat, what we eat, where we buy food and who is at our tables all become ways that we make the kingdom of God real and tangible where we are.

The biblical tradition has a lot to say about food, which makes it unfortunate that our churches often have so little to say on the subject. The first tasks given to humanity were to keep and till the earth. The books of the law told God’s people how and what to eat. The prophets spoke out against those who feasted while others starved and imagined days where all would eat from their own land and labor. Jesus fed crowds of thousands and used bread and wine as symbols of his continuing presence among us. Paul challenged the churches about finding equality at the table. As we move farther and farther away from the sources of our food, we move farther from our neighbor, farther from Creation and farther from God’s intentions for humanity.

Our liturgies envision a day when people will come from all corners of the world to feast at a common table. The work of the Church can be the work of moving us closer to that vision. It can be the work of removing barriers to the table. It can be the work of dismantling hierarchies that leave some to serve while others feast. It can be the work of overcoming painful histories to build a new future — one plate at a time.

Derrick Weston is the co-host of the “Food and Faith” podcast and a recipient of a pastoral study grant from the Louisville Institute, funded by the Lilly Endowment, to further his ministries centering on food issues. He is a member of Ashland Presbyterian Church in Hunt Valley, Maryland.

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