By: Mary Welter
Mary is from Novato, CA and graduated in 2015 from Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA with a degree in Biology and French. This year she is working as a Patient Advocate at Marie Reed, a beloved community-based health clinic in Washington, DC.
What ties community, spirituality, simple living, and social justice together? For me, the first answer that springs to mind is food. Bread shared, bread broken, bread bought in bulk at Safeway, and the underlying, unsettling knowledge that so few have enough to eat.
As a little girl receiving first communion, I remember being deeply unimpressed at how dry and insubstantial the Host was. After all of the anticipation and the many sermons on the all-sustaining bread of life, I was surprised to find that the body of Christ was not so far removed from a thin piece of Styrofoam. Having been spoiled with my mother’s freshly baked loaves of sourdough and whole wheat challah at home, I was sure that the bread in church was not, in fact, bread at all. How, I asked myself, could that one wafer fill you up?
Over the past few years, I have noticed how many mentions of food there are in Catholicism, and Christianity as a whole: the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the comparison of the Kingdom of God to leavening yeast, the feast when the prodigal son returns home, the Last Supper, the list goes on. This imagery now seems apt to me because the idea that faith and spirituality are meant to be sustaining rings true.
A good religious service, like a good meal, is nourishing, comforting, and better when shared with others.
At orientation, a past volunteer told us that the fastest way to build community was to eat together regularly. An expectation of the program is that all the volunteers will eat dinner most nights and that groceries will be purchased communally, so that aspect of community growth is fostered and, to a certain extent, required of participants. One of the last things our volunteer group did at orientation was sit down and talk about how communal eating would work once we were in DC. After days of silent reflection, spirituality seminars, and discussions of the intricacies of social justice issues, taking the time to get to the brass tacks of how to budget for groceries and what should be considered a pantry staple felt both domestic and a bit inconsequential.
However, it was shocking how quickly our conversation on food became passionate, opinionated, and, at times, hilariously divisive. In total, we spent nearly an hour debating fat free milk versus soy milk, corn versus flour tortillas, and whether ice cream could really be considered necessary when our food stipend was $110 per person a month. A piece of advice for all retreat leaders: throw out the boring animal-themed icebreakers and sit people down to talk about food. It is a good way to cut out small talk and get right to the heart of a person’s life. When talking to my housemates about their food preferences, I was constantly surprised by how deeply opinions on food are rooted in family, culture, and place. Essentially, when you learn what a person eats, you learn a slice of their history.
When I look in Junia House’s fridge, I can see the impact each of my housemates have made on how we eat as a group: we have gluten-free bread next to the typical whole wheat loaf, two types of salsa bought from the Mexican grocery store, chicken breasts waiting to be cooked for meat-Tuesdays, and a whole freshly-made pitcher of Sweet Tea waiting to be poured. Our house’s way of adapting to each other’s eating habits was, in most cases, to accommodate rather than compromise. We buy soy milk and skim milk, corn and flour tortillas, and when we have leftover money, we might splurge on some ice cream as well. And you know what, it all tastes great.
11/12/2015 01:03:47 pm
Mary...what a wonderful and refreshing article! I remember the conversation...about building community by eating together. I have always encouraged volunteers to do this....and for all the reasons who named.
11/13/2015 10:53:37 am
Mary, your observation about the Communion wafer, Host, took me back to my own First Communion where my chief memory centers around getting Jesus off the roof of my mouth. And, then, you bring me to meals shared with family, friends, community members, guests--bonding that occurs there is real, substantial, enduring. Thanks for your reflection, thank you for serving as a Loretto Volunteer! Every blessing a head, Barbara
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