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Feeding the spirit

by Donald E. Skinner

Jen Kitchen was looking for funnel cake when she found a religion. Dana Bjorklund deepened her faith in the depths of a neglected church refrigerator. Gary Bartle Cagle grew up a "southern fried Baptist" but has come to view cooking as a meditation.

We Unitarian Universalists love food as much as we love our coffee. We have potlucks, circle suppers, Sunday brunches, community gardens, seders, and Sunday school snacks. We work in soup kitchens, sell our dinners at the church talent auction, hold Second Sunday Sitdowns.

Where is our holy church? One place is in the kitchen.

When Paint Branch UU Church in Adelphi, Maryland, built a new building, the money ran out before the kitchen could be completed. The prospect of bare walls brought members together to organize a series of eight ethnic dinners, raising enough money to finish the kitchen. Each included a presentation about the culture and history of the region the food was from.

That was 12 years ago. The congregation didn't want the dinners to stop, and so they've continued, at three a year, netting about $500 each for the church, dinner coordinator Marilyn Straczuk says.

"A person who once spoke at church encouraged us to look at how the work of our committees supported the UU principles," she says. "Ethnic dinners help us gain a better understanding of other cultures. Eating the foods they eat every day and those they reserve for their holidays and special occasions, and learning why they choose these foods, why they're cooked or seasoned as they are, is as close as many of us will come to being invited to sit at their tables with them."

Jen Kitchen and her husband were married in a UU church, then drifted away. A few years later a craving for funnel cake drew her to a county fair, where she came across a booth for a new congregation — the UU Congregation of Somerset Hills, New Jersey. Now she's on the board and her husband is in the choir. "I never did get my funnel cake," she remembers. "But I got a lot more."

Dana Bjorklund was president of the UU Society of Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, when it became obvious that someone had to clean out the society's increasingly ripe refrigerator. Who better than the president? As she and her partner, Linda, were at it, they were joined by "a guy named Ed" and a friendship was formed, Bjorklund says. "We didn't even ask him, he just offered. I'll always be grateful to him. I have a vivid image of him carting away a 10-gallon bucket of goop that was hard to think of as being food in a previous incarnation. Talk about disgusting! It showed his commitment to the congregation, that he was willing to help with the most grotesque job imaginable."

Each week, volunteers from the First UU Church of Berks County in Reading, Pennsylvania, under the leadership of food bank coordinator Sue Smith, pick up, pack, and distribute food to needy people.

"Sharing food together is a profoundly spiritual experience in many world religions, but sharing food with strangers may be one of the deepest of religious rituals," says the Rev. John Morgan, Berks County minister.

"What I have witnessed is more than just distributing food," says Morgan. "It's the way in which volunteers serve people kindly and, perhaps most important, listen to them. It is the human connections made around food that matter as much as the food itself."

Betty Oppenheimer jokes that food helped convince members of the Quimper UU Fellowship in Port Townsend, Washington, that she was trustworthy. An hour after she'd cooked 30 pounds of salmon, outside, in the midst of a windstorm and a power failure, she was elected to the search committee for a new minister. "Do you think there's a connection between food and trust?" she asks.

Food keeps the 30 members of the Arborg Unitarian Church in Arborg, Manitoba, connected. Church is twice monthly, always followed by a potluck. Some of the dishes keep a connection to Arborg's Icelandic founders, such as vinerterta, a cake; ponnakak, a thin pancake rolled with brown sugar, and rulypylfa, thinly sliced spiced lamb. Nearly everyone stays, says president Sylvia Sigurdson. "It's our time to catch up on people's lives and reflect on the sermon."

Cathy Harrington and Fred Rabidoux are leading a course on food at Starr King School for the Ministry this year called "Twelve Baskets: Sacred Eating." Harrington, a ministerial student and former bakery owner in Seward, Alaska, hopes to help reduce the inroads that fast food has made in our congregational life.

"I don't know if you've been to a potluck lately, but even here at Starr King people bring fast food and grocery store containers to our monthly feast night. The fast food culture is robbing us of one of the best parts of food — preparing it. We hope to inspire people to enjoy cooking and sacred eating again. We want ministers to get a sense of the real importance of breaking bread together. When people eat they communicate with one another."

Gary Bartle Cagle grew up in the South, "where food and faith go together just like gravy and biscuits or black-eyed peas and cornbread." A member of Chalice UU Congregation in Poway, California, he's writing a book on food and faith, drawn in part from childhood experiences with Baptist revival meetings and the outdoor dinners that followed. "Even then I asked questions," he says. "Did God really prefer long sermons to the smell of the food? Weren't the vine-covered oak groves where we would eat as holy as the old white-painted church with its tin roof? Didn't the Bible say God loved the smell of sweet sacrifices?"

Dinners prepared by Chalice members sell for hundreds of dollars at the annual auction. Each year there is a "Chocoholics Unanimous Party," a chocolate desserts potluck. Cagle, a Zen practitioner, says, "I think that cooking food is a direct connection to the divine. By preaching and praying we're supposedly getting close to God. But on looking back, I think the frying was just as important, even if it filled us with calories and cholesterol.

"I believe that being conscious of how I prepare food is a meditation," says Cagle. "And cooking is one sure path to enlightenment. Indeed, how could consciousness not be altered by the smells of hot soup and apple pie?"

Pretty much the first volunteer church work that Marjorie Rice did was food-related. "It was a Congregational church on Long Island," she said, "and at coffee hour all they had were pots of hot water and jars of instant coffee. Very crude."

Rice set up a proper coffee service and now, 12 years later, she's still dealing in church food and drink. At Shawnee Mission UU Church in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kansas, she and husband Bill have a ministry in food. When a brunch needs to be organized, a newcomers' breakfast set up, or simply coffee and cookies set out after church, they're often the ones who do it.

"My feeling is that it's great to have all the wonderful discussions we have," says Marjorie, "but someone still has to make the coffee."

UU World XV:5 (November/December 2001): 52-53.

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