Friday, November 21, 2008
Broken Bodies, Breaking Bread
Growing up in Ohio I was raised on stories of Johnny Appleseed, the itinerant sower who probably never had the chance to reap the fruits of his labors. His was a vocation forged in faith. Unlike many of us who try to tend a patch of green earth over the course of a lifetime, John Chapman planted seeds and simply moved on, hoping that one day someone would enjoy the benefits of his work and passion.
I'm fortunate to have been introduced to these tales at an early age because I think they have helped me to understand – and to come to terms with – what I do as a teacher. It can be frustrating at times not knowing how the students in your classes will process and synthesize the material that you hold so close to your heart. Not unlike the hero of my youth, I often just plant seeds and watch them move on, trusting that one day others will bring in the harvest.
Every now and then, though – and thankfully this happens more frequently than it used to – I get the chance to catch a glimpse of what the future holds, and on Wednesday I was afforded one of these opportunities. For the past week, students on our campus have been observing Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, taking advantage of service and learning activities focused especially on these important issues. Central to the program was a student-organized worship experience where stories were told and prayers offered on behalf of the unseen millions in our country and around the world who lack adequate shelter and suffer from food insecurity, if not starvation.
This service was especially moving for me because, for once, I began to feel my age – and it was a good thing. Perhaps it was because we are nearing the end of the semester and I'm just a little more drained than usual, or perhaps it was because we have just come away from an election in which it has been quite apparent that a torch has been passed, but as I watched these students profess their faith in various ways, I had a very palpable sense that the world was now in the hands of a new generation. And it was going to be OK. Why? Because every day I work with very bright young people who continually convince me that they are ready, and very able, to begin planting their own seeds. They really want to start the work of making things work.
I offer as two examples a brief homily written by a senior Religion and Christian Ministry major, Meggan Lloyd, and a hymn adapted by a senior Music and Christian Ministry major, Sabrina Miller. Both of these were composed especially for the Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week worship service held on November 18. I thought they were too good not to be shared.
Breaking Bread: A Homily by Meggan Lloyd
It was a Friday afternoon, early in June. Fridays at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, located in the heart of the Mission district of San Francisco, are when the food pantry is in operation. A charismatic and passionate woman named Sara Miles, a self-proclaimed atheist who wandered into St. Gregory’s one day and found a home, runs the pantry from the altar of the church. I had flown to San Francisco to work with Sara, attracted by the notion of giving away food from the same place where we receive it.
The pantry is run solely by volunteers, many of whom were once visitors to the pantry themselves. They arrive early in the morning and unload the crates of food onto flattened cardboard boxes. The end result is an array of colors and smells, as fruits, vegetables, breads, pastas, beans, cereals, and dry goods are heaped into piles encircling the altar.
From noon to 4:00 on Friday, every Friday, these groceries are then subsequently given away. No questions asked; no restrictions placed; no forms required. Anyone and everyone is welcome, whether first time visitors or monthly regulars. No one is denied.
I was assigned to a job by the door, and from this post I was able to observe the visitors coming in and out of the pantry. There were diverse nationalities: Hispanic, Russian, African-American, Chinese. Women who looked as if they called the streets home; children too young to be in such need; a man dressed to the nines in an expensive three-piece suit: a regular customer.
I watched body expressions, listened to comments. One old Chinese immigrant raced in with her grocery sack open and ready, and exclaimed with delight at the potatoes. “Look at those potatoes! So good! So good!” she repeated, over and over. Another old woman, when handed an ice cream pop, a special treat that week, didn’t have to exclaim or shout; the tears streaming down her face said enough.
The food pantry at St. Gregory’s is one of many such free grocery pantries across San Francisco. In an interview, the assistant director of the San Francisco food bank was asked about the aim of such programs. She painted a vivid image by stating, “Donors love pictures of cute little kids having snacks at school. And they support meal programs for seniors. But nobody’s lining up to say, 'Gee, I want to put food in the cupboard for really poor black mothers who use drugs; I want to buy groceries for everyone living in the projects.' Very few donors trust poor people enough to just give away food without conditions.”
I was humbled by Sara’s ability to do this, this giving away of food with no conditions. She held the capacity of being able to treat every visitor with dignity and respect, no matter what their story or circumstance. Many of the guests confided in her, sharing tales of their past, the tumultuous events that led them to St. Gregory’s. Instead of shying away she embraced them, their needs outweighing what they had done in her eyes. To the rest of St. Gregory’s congregation the visitors to the pantry had been invisible; Sara gave them a name, a face, and a voice.
In her memoir Take This Bread, she states that by walking into St. Gregory’s she discovered a religion “rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the despised and outcasts are honored.”
As we reflect on this Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week I would challenge everyone in this chapel to think about the tables we sit at, the spaces in which we live. Who is invited? Who is welcome? Do we distinguish between the worthy and unworthy? Do we place labels and set restrictions?
Four o'clock came too fast that Friday afternoon in June. I wasn’t ready to leave. I wasn’t ready to be done. I felt I had been one small piece of something meaningful to the hundreds of people the pantry served that day, learning invaluable lessons along the way.
Later in her memoir Sara Miles goes on to say that when contemplating starting the pantry, she couldn’t shake the image, that vision of a Table where everyone was welcome. As she says, “our neighbors, friends and strangers, were hungry. The very least a church could do, for starters, was feed them.” Let us think about this notion, this challenge of welcoming everyone, worthy and unworthy, to our table. Let us invite everyone to eat.
Is the Bread a Broken Body?
Lyrics by Sabrina Miller. Sung to the tune of "Come Thou Fount."
Is the bread a broken body and a source of life unknown,
Or a clear and present danger of a Kingdom all our own?
Can the wine offer forgiveness for a sin that's left uncleansed?
Here we eat and they go hungry, is this what our God intends?
In a pew the Pharisees sit shouting prayers into the streets.
Those who hear them cannot listen over famished heartbeats.
Wretched lost and then forsaken, broken, battered, crucified.
Let us feed them, let us love them, not the least of them denied.
God intended good creation, woman, man, or otherwise.
Let us join together singing hymns of praise and sacrifice.
We God's children fill a promise of a Kingdom come to earth.
We shall spread God's love around us to shed light and bring new birth.