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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Bible, Food and Community

I have never been much of a Bible reader. I know the basics but sit down and read it on my own has never been a priority to me. That was until this year. First, I have to admit that I bought a Bible from Barnes and Noble the day before I flew out of Iowa. I didn’t really have one that inspired me or that I was personally attached to and to be frank the one I had looked too big and heavy to pack. So with 24 hours left in town I picked up my NIV Student Bible, the compact version of course. As it would turn out this Bible and the headlamp I bought on the same errand run have become perhaps the 2 most used things during my time here in Soweto. (In case you are wondering my room has one electrical outlet that is typically used each night to charge my computer or phone so I use the headlamp to read.)

My first Sunday in Soweto I attended my first church service conducted in isiZulu. I didn’t understand a word and found myself flipping through my Bible. I had been informed that church in South Africa was BYOB (Bring your own Bible). So I found myself flipping through my brand new shiny Bible I found that this Bible came with a handy 180 day plan of reading the Bible. I was intrigued and it had a fun bookmark that you got to check off everyday. This was not a major read every word of the Bible plan but an overview of sorts. It entailed reading at least one chapter from every book. It also makes sure you get all the best known, most quoted portions.

If you do the math I should have finished this plan in March if it really did take 180 days and I stuck to my original plan of reading (like my bookmark told me to) one chapter a day. I have to confess last night I had to do some math and I realized I am going to have to double up some days. So I haven’t been the most loyal but I will, by the time I board the plane back to the United States in July, read all 180 chapters that are listed on my bookmark and I will check every single one of the off said bookmark!

In what has really become my first reading of the Bible I have discovered time and time again how food is a common theme. Ok, so it might not be the most common theme but it is something I have understand. People are always congregating around food. Food and meals are one of the foundations of community. This foundation and bounding around food is quite clear in the Jewish communities of the Old Testament, Jesus and his followers in the Gospels, and the communities of the early Christian Churches. I, too, have found community over food.

Last year I lived in an intentional community. Part of the agreement was we ate together most nights of the week. They weren’t always the greatest meals. Nor were they always memorable. But some where and now looking back almost an entire year later it is around food that most of my memories are based. Finding a roommate who loved peanut butter as much as I do, learning to cook on a bare minimum budget together, the worst meals and the best meals; it was all part of our community and our food.

I have found myself coming back to this idea of community around food but in Soweto. Community is in every aspect of food from it’s growth, preparation, and consumption. I do not believe you can see that as clearly as you can on a Saturday in Soweto. On every single Saturday white tents are assembled everywhere. These tents close down streets and are an automatic sign for a party. (Attempting to get anywhere in a hurry on a Saturday in Soweto is impossible due to the scenic routes these tents cause!) The norm is that a white tent signals either a wedding or a funeral. It takes some skill to be able to differentiate the two. They both involve huge meals served to all guests.

A few weeks ago I was attending one such wedding in a big white tent on what would have been a busy street if the tent hadn‘t been assembled there. I had never met anyone who was at this party other than the people I came with but that was a very minor detail. I was welcomed with open arms as an honored guest, served coffee and tea. I have no idea how many people were actually invited to this wedding. Now that I am thinking of it I have only seen one wedding invitation in my time here. Everyone just knows and with that knowledge knows that they are invited and will be welcomed with open arms just as I was.

I love how cooking goes here. I swear in Soweto when there is an event it is customary to cook for all 4 million residents of Soweto. Small houses are full of people and expanded into the street with the tent. You must be prepared for everyone and anyone and this is never a problem it is just the way it is. Huge pots with huge tubs of food keep appearing with a stream of just washed plates; to an outsider it seems like there is an endless supply that is somewhat magical. It becomes less magical when you find yourself in the kitchen where a handful of women (always called mamas) who have been working for days and will continue to work for days at this huge operation. Yet, as a visitor and guest I rarely get to see this side.

I have seen this over and over again. Weddings, funerals, birthdays, confirmation, even family dinners are prepared in away that no matter who may show up there will be food to spare. This is something I hope I can take this back to the United States with me. Not that I could take the mounds of food although I would love to to share with everyone because, trust me, it is delicious. But the community around food. I thought I understood what it was like to have a community around food. I did but it has now been expanded. I have found that in these times I have felt the most community spirit. I use to think that meals were a time to share with people you knew and cared for or maybe to get to know a new person. I have learned, been shown by my hosts in Soweto, that the community around food is so much bigger than that small narrow understanding. Enjoying a meal sharing in a celebration of a wedding or celebrating the life of someone who has passed on the feeling of community is almost tangible even for me, who most of the time can‘t understand what is being said around me due to vast variety of languages, and have never met 99% of the people there I can still feel the community.

As I think about these events my mind keeps coming back to the miracle of the food in the Bible. It is such a timeless concept, both food and community and how they come together. I have now learned how it transcends cultures and traditions too. And I hope to take this understanding as play it out in my own communities and personal faith.