Tuesday, May 07, 2013

A Place At The Table: A Homily from the Welcome Table, to the Phillips Theological Seminary community


A Place At The Table

Homily by Rev. Ron Robinson at Phillips Theological Seminary

Tuesday, May 7, 2013 Noon Chapel

Acts 2: 43-47

43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.44All who believed were together and had all things in common;45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
http://www.magpictures.com/aplaceatthetable/ The official film site link. Go see trailer and film clips that were shown today at Phillips, and find how to see the full film.


            One of the things that the documentary A Place at the Table gets right is about the presence of hidden hunger and food insecurity in our land. It is hidden to the extent that many Americans have a television image of what hunger looks like. I just came back from another trip to the Philippines where you can easily see that picture of hunger along the streets. But, even here, it is not that hidden really; it is just that we don’t put ourselves where we will see it.

            I know a woman, 86 years old, all of it spent on Tulsa’s northside, from the days when family structures took care of those falling through the cracks, to the days of the working class structures and union jobs and when people knew how to grow their own food to the more recent days of the neighborhood and family decimation and death of all the places where people met others in shared common life together. She came to one of our community holiday festivals where our group provides free entertainment and food; she watched as we had to go to the store six times during the night; she saw the people of all ages eating everything, including the healthy food, and stuffing pockets and piling plates high to take back with them.

 I saw her, who lived in the midst of these neighbors, see a part of their lives for the first time. In terms of the language of Acts, it was a sign and wonder that changed how she saw the world and what God was calling for in response. It is what teachers see on Mondays when the students return to school. It is what social workers see who hear the stories of individuals and families trying to dig out of holes of all kinds of illnesses, or to put their lives together after prison, and having to rely on the pittance of assistance that is gone in a SNAP. It is what you would see if you go to Warehouse Market at midnight on the first of the month when they stay open two extra hours when benefits kick in for even just a percentage of folks. It is what we see each week during our Food Days. And the truth is that if we held our Food Days everyday, as would be nice; if we continue to triple the number of people we serve each month, if we were serving ten times as many people each month, we would continue to see it. For the documentary is also right that the need is too great and diverse in its causes for non-profits alone, especially those with all volunteers like ours, or philanthropy and business alone, or government alone. But I believe, as they say in the film, that it is possible to make hunger and food insecurity go away in my lifetime.

We begin by creating Acts 2 relationships, where we see that we are all bound together, with mutual relationships, and that to form those relationships we must be with one another, talking or planning or acting not just about the poor but with them, and that the issue of food is bound up with other issues; in our area, for example, it is connected to the lack of sidewalks and street lights and transportation; so that people must often walk for more than a mile to get to a grocery store, taking the store’s cart to carry food back home, often in the middle of Peoria Ave. if it has been snowing or raining, or they are in a motorized scooter.

The film also addresses the problem of the kind of food assistance the poor receive, not just the lack of adequate purchasing power. In fact much of the food one purchases at the local stores in poor communities, or much that one receives through the food bank, through us apart from what we grow in our community gardenpark and orchard, is part of the problem. For high calorie, low nutrition foods are just another addiction that many of our neighbors have, adding to the life expectancy gap of 14 years in our zipcode. Such food, readily convenient especially for folks who struggle so much in other ways that they look for convenience where they can find it, such food contributes to the bad emotional responses, to the short day to day subsistence cycle of lives unable to project a future to live  and transform toward.

 It is also a hard but at times necessary addictive choice, too, because of the choice we force on them between the needed nutrition and the needed calories for daily energy demands. Top chefs like Mario Batali who have been trying to live on food assistance and food pantries have not been able to navigate those choices. If you are at our cornerstore, and have a certain number of items per household, and you have to choose, for example, between lettuce and mac and cheese, you are likely going to choose mac and cheese—it will give you the calories your body needs, especially if you are doing physical day labor trying to make some money each day, or walking or biking for miles looking for work or food or shelter. But, as the chef found out, it is difficult to ever feel full, and the process of trying to find food, prepare it, and eat it is tiring, and meals that become chores are also not going to have any interest, nothing special in them. I wonder how that in itself drives people to seeking flavor in all the wrong places because they aren’t getting it in the daily ordinariness of life. For a growing number of people we take something, our daily meal, that scripture and our Christian tradition, as well as that of many other traditions, says is an act of sacred living, and we take the sacred life out of it. The result? We grow lives without a sense of the sacred, damaged from daily life itself, and we punish them, we put them out of sight and out of mind, and making it easier for them to get access to guns than to healthy food and health care so we can keep them out of sight and out of mind. It is the opposite of an Acts 2 culture; in fact, where the Acts community expands and grows its relationships, our dominant culture is shrinking its circles of common life.

 I know the Food Bank and our folks are aware of this and working on it, and we are getting more and more healthy food items, more vegetables and fruit, if not fully local and fresh.  It is one of our dilemmas, but we say that what we are trying to do is to give what we can, in order to gradually grow in relationships to be able to influence food choices; what we are trying to do is to make it just a little bit easier on a few folks to be able to have a little bit more agency in their lives, a bit more dunamis, in order for it to be easier to make a few more right decisions. When you are hungry it is hard to think ahead, to think straight, to think evenly. Anything we can do to mitigate against that in just a few lives, we believe, makes a difference that affects many. We are becoming a part of an initiative between the Food Bank here and the University of Oklahoma called FeedHope. It is based on cultivating three factors that lead to more hope-filled lives: instilling more of that sense of agency (not just urgency) in lives; providing real pathways for people to take to change once their new sense of agency enables it; and helping them set goals in life for coming through those pathways into a more abundant life.

Where the film leaves off, or leaves out, is where I believe the deeper solution lies. Yes, increase immensely the resources and capacity for food banks and meal ministries and school programs to help take that edge off of hunger and food insecurity. But the real win-win is to get more people growing, cooking, and sharing their own food, from their own homes, own neighborhoods. As guerilla gardener Ron Finley in South Central L.A. says, growing your own food is like printing your own money. It is also taking your own health back into your own hands. It is making blighted communities into beautiful and bountiful communities. It is reminding the world as Jurgen Moltmann says that the opposite of poverty is not property, but the opposite of both poverty and property is community.

To that end, many such groups as ours are beginning the risky and difficult process of getting new generations of people to taste what healthy food is like, to give it a try, and from that to make it as convenient as possible for them to both get it and grow it, through gardens, kitchens, markets, mobile healthy food trucks, neighborhood events, a re-emergence of true  home economics in schools, and yes even in churches of many shapes and sizes and missional communities. So far though these all too often are still located and resourced in places away from communities with the most need of them. You can use SNAP to buy fresh local grown food, and you can use SNAP to buy seeds, but even if you are convinced you can do it (when so much of your life you have seen yourself and been told that you are unable to do anything) and even if you have a place to grow, you have to be able to get to where the food and the seeds are.

What we want our still emerging abandoned trashed out properties turned into a gardenpark and orchard to be is not so much really THE place to come rest and play and grow and connect, but A place to learn and be inspired so that our neighbors will go back to their own homes and own blocks and cul-de-sacs and dead-end streets full of abandonment and do the same right there. Our goal is to create Apostles of Abundance, those who are Sent to the world, Sent back to the world of their own street and home. Not only every school then a garden, every church a garden, but every subdivision and neighborhood a garden. And When that happens every garden itself then will become a school, a civic group, a church, a temple.

That would be a sign and a wonder. We have seen shining glimpses of it already. Come and see.

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