Uncle Bobby Joe had the gift of food. He could cook up a mess of just about anything and feed a crowd of just about any size. When Uncle Bobby moved back to the family farm and designed his mobile home, he deleted the living room to accommodate a long dining table. Yes. He designed his home around the table. In order to have a living room, he had to build an addition (which, by the by, would accommodate even more seating for meals).
Uncle Bobby knew the power of food to bring folks together. Part of the draw of moving to Florida for Allen and me is getting to gather around Uncle Bobby Joe’s table at least once a month to eat with family. He’s gone now, but his table lives on.
Food. It’s just food. And yet, it’s so much more, isn’t it? Without food, we die. Without healthy food, we cannot thrive. With unhealthy food, we do great harm to our bodies. Food is, literally, the stuff of life.
In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus is baptized, he hears the words, “You are my beloved child, with you I am well-pleased.” Luke tells us the experience fills Jesus up with the Holy Spirit… which sounds like a good thing… But when Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returns from the Jordan, he is led by the same Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he’s tempted by the devil. He eats nothing at all during those days. At the end of it, he’s famished.
It’s when he’s famished that the devil begins testing Jesus…promising him all the kingdoms in the world and all power, if Jesus will but renounce God. When Jesus passes the test and rebuffs the devil’s offers, the tempter leaves him until an opportune time.
Most religions include practices of fasting. It’s considered a means of accessing spiritual enlightenment. Was Jesus able to pass the devil’s test because his lack of physical nourishment sharpened his spiritual acuity? Perhaps.
The invitation this Lent is to contemplate–and experience–the connection between physical hunger and spiritual hunger. Why is food a central theme in religious experience? What’s the big deal about food…both physically and spiritually? And, more to the point, what’s the connection between physical sustenance and spiritual sustenance? Answers to these questions will unfold over the next six weeks. The invitation this Lent is to open our minds and hearts–and stomachs–to whatever this season might offer to our imaginations.
Food. It’s just food. And yet, it’s so much more…especially, when you don’t have any. When it comes down to it, choosing to fast is a privilege. Choosing to fast is a gift. What about those for whom fasting is not chosen?
Global Citizen is a nonprofit whose mission is ending world hunger. According to Global Citizen, 795 million people do not have access to enough food to survive and thrive in the world. 66 million of these people are children, and hunger prevents them from achieving their full potential in school. Globally, that’s one out of nine people who do not get enough food to live the life they want. And the majority of the world’s hungry live in developing countries–where 12.9 percent of the population struggles with hunger, while other regions of the world waste billions of tons of food each year. In Sub-Saharan Africa, one out of four people is hungry.
Of course, it’s not only people in other countries who are hungry or food insecure. A few statistics from the United Way: (1) One in 8 families in America is hungry. That’s 12.3% of all U.S. households. (2) 48% of college students in America are food insecure. (3) 15% of people in rural areas are hungry. (4) 60% of households led by older Americans must choose between buying groceries or paying utility bills. https://www.unitedway.org/blog/5-surprising-facts-about-hunger-in-america#
The saddest thing about hunger in the world and in our country is that there’s enough food in the world to feed every person. So, what’s the problem?
Part of the problem is poor agricultural practices that have led to a sharp reduction of nutrients in soil. Climate change also is a problem, especially for subsistence farmers in places like sub-Saharan Africa. Food distribution processes also prevent many people from receiving the food they need.
I wonder, though, if the problem with hunger in our world isn’t so much a matter of science or distribution methods. I wonder if the problem of hunger in our world and our country is a spiritual one. As Dom Helder Camara, a priest in El Salvador, said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.”
When we feed the poor here in Buncombe County, we are doing good work. Some might even call us saints. But when we ask why there are hungry folks…here in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina? I wonder what they will call us then.
In 1845, Frederick Douglass took a tour in Europe in an effort to drum up support for the cause of the abolition of slavery. Douglass was a gifted speaker, who shared with audiences his own horrific experiences of slavery.
When Douglass arrived in Ireland, the poverty he saw stunned him. He wondered why he was asking such an impoverished people for money to support abolition efforts in the United States.
The great potato famine, it’s called. A blight obliterated potato crops for years. The Irish people starved. Between 1845 and 1849, at least 1 million people died. Another million immigrated to other countries. What happened to cause the famine?
From 1801 until it gained independence in the early 20th century, Ireland was effectively a British colony. Ireland had representatives in Parliament, but most of those representatives were British gentry who had purchased land in Ireland.
When the potato blight came, the British government was slow to respond. A few tariffs were lifted, but little else was done. In fact–and this is stunning–Ireland “continued to export large quantities of food, primarily to Great Britain, during the blight. In cases such as livestock and butter, research suggests that exports may actually have increased during the Potato Famine. In 1847 alone, records indicate that commodities such as peas, beans, rabbits, fish and honey continued to be exported from Ireland, even as the Great Hunger ravaged the countryside.” https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/irish-potato-famine#:~:text=The%20Irish%20Potato%20Famine%2C%20also,over%20the%20next%20seven%20years.
Was the devastation of the potato famine caused by a natural disaster? Though the blight was real, mass starvation could have been avoided with compassionate action by the British government, action that never came. In 1997, Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a statement offering a formal apology to Ireland for the U.K. government’s handling of the crisis at the time.
In the town of Midleton, County Cork, Ireland, stands a sculpture titled, Kindred Spirits. The circle of large silver feathers commemorates a stunning act of kindness by members of the Choctaw tribe in the United States in 1847. Just 16 years after they’d been forcibly relocated by the US government through “The Trail of Tears,” members of the Choctaw nation–themselves suffering poverty–sent $170 (the equivalent of $5000 today) to Ireland. The funds were distributed by the Quakers, who served the Irish people during the famine.
The Choctaw people might have been poor, but they were not poor in spirit. Their spirits were just fine. Their spirits were just. They had a little, so they shared a little. The powers that be in the UK weren’t poor, but their inaction in the face of such horrific suffering showed just how impoverished their spirits were.
A couple of years ago, the Hopi and Navajo people were suffering tremendously because of the pandemic. A GoFundMe plea went out. Irish donors contributed generously to the fund.
One of those donors, Sean Callahan, said, “I’d already known what the Choctaw did in the famine, so short a time after they’d been through the Trail of Tears. It always struck me for its kindness and generosity and I see that too in the Irish people. It seemed the right time to try and pay it back in kind.” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/05/world/coronavirus-ireland-native-american-tribes.html
Cassandra Begay, communications director for the fund-raiser, said this, “The Choctaw ancestors planted that seed a long time ago, based off the fundamental belief of helping someone else. It is a dark time for us. The support from Ireland is phenomenal.”
Food. It’s just food. And yet, it’s so, so, so much more.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2022