By Rev. Eva Englert-Jessen
Program Coordinator for the Center for Calling and Christian Leadership, Hendrix College
I’m not sure I’d be a minister today if it weren’t for church potlucks. There is something about the gelatinous salads, mac and cheese, quirky cupboard serving bowls and potluck conversation that nourishes the soul. I think Jesus knew what he was doing when he told us that coming together around simple elements — brought forth as wheat and grape from creation and nurtured into bread and wine — is a profound way to experience God’s love, and to be challenged to extend that holy Table into the world.
Food matters. Food really matters.
Churches have played a tremendous role in responding to the needs of the hungry, through a variety of food programs such as weekly meals for anyone in need in the community, summer meal programs for schoolchildren, and food pantries. This work is important; it shouldn’t stop. And yet, as helpful and theologically grounded (and important!) as food charity is, I’ve learned more and more that the complexity of problems related to food injustice and poverty require an even more robust response from the church; responses that get at the heart of the issues themselves.
Two of my favorite food justice authors Roger Gottlieb and Anapuma Joshi define food justice in terms of equity, fairness, and sustainability not only for consumers and eaters, but also in terms of how food is grown, produced, and accessed. If the food systems that create hunger are characterized by a lack of equity and fairness in any of these areas, then to respond in a meaningful way necessitates paying attention to the interaction of all of these components of food injustice.
I wonder about possibilities for deeper engagement in our Arkansas Methodist churches around this. There are so many ways to do this work creatively! Examining the roots is hard, and time-consuming, and requires asking questions that don’t always have straightforward answers or quick fixes—but is that not the road of faith we walk in our personal lives and with our fellow Christians? The task Jesus gives us to love God and love neighbor is not an easy task, but it is one we do in community.
One such example of this examination of the roots is situated in uncovering the history of lands we live on, and the ways throughout history and into our present in which land has been used to exploit God’s creation—both the land and the people—who were forced leave or to work it. As I’m learning from teachers and writers such as Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch of Arkansas State University, Arkansas is not exempt from a past that not only enslaved Africans and their descendants, but that also upheld many programs (including programs connected to the U.S. Department of Agriculture) that continued to deny African-Americans the right to land ownership even after the abolishment of slavery. We can draw a pretty direct line from this history to the reality of what many experts call “food deserts,” where lack of access to fresh, healthy foods is clustered in specific geographic areas. Communities affected by land loss and food deserts are in or near our churches. I feel God calling us to dive more deeply into the realities that affect their abilities to live the abundant life into which Jesus calls us.
Some might read this and think I’m being “political,” a word that has become so demonized in our age of partisan polarization. But I believe that the God who calls us all to partner in what John Wesley would describe as God’s work of reconciling all of creation, calls us to reckon with the ways in which we humans are capable of both great compassion and kindness and great harm. I think this reckoning sometimes involves zeroing in on the nitty-gritty layers and systems that we move through, even when we’d much rather not look at them at all.
Even as we dive more deeply into the causes of hunger and the ways in which poverty ensnares so many in our communities, let’s not forget the abundant grace of God that is always present, always reaching out, always inviting us into deeper relationship with Christ, one another, and with the Holy Spirit that dwells within each of us. As we gather around Fellowship Hall tables for potlucks and approach a season of holiday meals and gatherings, may we be transformed by meals of grace and the Meal of Grace we partake in as Christians during Communion. May we also extend that grace into each person, creature, and moment we encounter.
Rev. Eva Englert-Jessen (Hendrix ’12, Boston University School of Theology ’17) is a provisional Deacon in the North Texas Conference of the UMC. She is serving in Arkansas as the Program Coordinator for the Center for Calling and Christian Leadership. The Center, which is based at Hendrix College, creates programs for young United Methodists to explore and discern their calls to lay and ordained ministry and church leadership.
Eva is passionate about the intersections of vocation, faith, and justice—especially related to food and the environment. As a Deacon, she is also committed to supporting and creating spaces for the church (broadly defined) to be a source of personal and social transformation.