Nourishing community with good food: An instrument of mercy
"When you eat a meal, thank the farmer who harvested it and think about their livelihood. Food is something that connects all of us as a community, wherever we live."
- Oxfam Fact Sheet
This statement is from a farmer and my sister, Ellen Walsh-Rosmann. It helps me remember that something as basic as eating food and sharing it with community influences how I contribute to the reign of God.
I am from a food family. I grew up in a rural, agricultural, Christian community that taught me to understand that caring for Earth and neighbor is an issue of social justice. Our neighbor is the land as are all creatures large and small that also claim the land as home. As a child I would help my mother garden huge plots of land and sell our produce along with our homemade baked goods at the local farmer's market.
Today, my sister Ellen and her husband and his parents operate an organic farm and raise organic beef, pork, grains, hay and eggs. They own a local foods restaurant in Harlan, Iowa, called Milk & Honey that my brother manages. Their other business, FarmTable Procurement & Delivery, helps farmers distribute their produce to area grocers and restaurants. Each of these endeavors aims to help build stronger, more sustainable communities.
In the opposite corner of the state of Iowa my parents own and operate The Irish Shanti, a famous restaurant in Gunder. They are in the business of "serving up good food and good hospitality," as my dad Kevin likes to say. There definitely is a community feeling as people come from far and near and enjoy feasts together.
My family of choice — as we sometimes call our sisters in community with us — also shows me how to be in better relationship with food and neighbor, while demonstrating how food is an instrument of mercy. Our prayer life is centered around the Eucharist, by our practice of perpetual adoration. This prayer energizes us for our ministries of justice and mercy. For example, ecological advocate Sr. Lucy Slinger and our eco-spirituality committee operate a large organic garden to provide good food to our congregation. Many sisters also feed the hungry by volunteering at local soup kitchens, food pantries and by cooking meals for a warming center — a safe place where people who are homeless can sleep.
And then there are the meals we make for each other. Each Tuesday night I take my turn cooking for the community of sisters I live with. This week I made tortellini soup; last week I served broccoli noodle casserole and steaks topped with pesto. Although I always try to serve food that is delicious, for me my cooking night means more than just putting together a great menu.
When I cook, I try to offer love and nourishment to my sisters whose days have been full of offering works of mercy to our hurting neighbors and friends. And when I'm busy in ministry, knowing that my day will end with a shared meal strengthens me.
Within this rhythm of mindful and grounded cooking and eating we are strengthened to grow in right relationship with community. It is just as grounding as the heartbeat of our prayer.
I recently read a reflection in one my favorite cookbooks that echoed my convictions, and challenged me to greater mindfulness about how I eat:
Whenever possible food shall be eaten in the company of others. When that is not possible, eat in the presence of the holy. Light a candle or place yourself in harmony with God's creation. . . . Each eating experience should include a time of centering, remembering God's goodness and offering an expression of thanks. . . . By grace we are given the chance to live each new day in right relationship with God, our neighbors and our food. (Ingrid Friesen Moser, Simply in Season, p. 222)
Even though I understand that eating is a sacred and religious experience, it is easy for me to take food for granted — partly because I live in the land of American abundance and have not suffered from scarcity. Around here, there is so much to eat that I sometimes justify my consumption by saying that I am helping to prevent food waste. I don't have to work too hard to have good food. Even in the midst of a drought or disaster I expect that the grocery stores will remain well-stocked.
Plus, I have bad habits. I am skilled at mindlessly devouring junk food and giving into a craving for sugar or fried food without much regret. I am weak around free goodies — bypassing free donuts without giving into temptation ought to be an Olympic sport. I fall short in my attempts to honor the goodness of God alive in each morsel of food I come in contact with.
Such eating habits have had their ill effects on me. United with my many overweight American sisters and brothers, I got chubby and out of shape. Moving around became more difficult, and I was overwhelmed by a sudden need to find better-fitting clothing. I had to learn how to track my eating and discover what amount of food was actually appropriate.
Honestly, I had to do some tough spiritual work and come to terms with the fact that some of the Gospel messages I proclaim, such as "Love your neighbor as you love yourself" and "care for creation," are not just about forgiveness and recycling; good stewardship and love means I must take care of my own body, too.
Fortunately, God's love gives me the freedom to improve and grow into the child of God I was made to be — a woman who honors the sacredness of every morsel of good food.
By "good" I mean food that is nutritious and delicious. But the meaning doesn't stop there. "Good food" honors God's designs and helps create a more socially just world: as much as possible it is grown sustainably without artificial chemicals and is fresh, organic, locally produced or fairly traded. It is grown in a way that fosters right relationships between humans and other species. It is packaged in a way that reduces waste and pollution. "Good food" is sacred and holy; reminding us of how we are connected in community and consumed in a way that honors the truth of God's goodness revealed in the bounty of the earth. It energizes a holy and healthy life — a Gospel life, helping unite the Body of Christ.
With such good food fueling our church and communities, let us do as my sister suggests and give thanks for the farmers who labored for it. Then, let us praise God, the source of all that is good.
[Sr. Julia Walsh, FSPA, is a high school religion teacher and blogger; read more of her work at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]