“The book of Genesis opens in a garden,” Kendall Vanderslice writes in We Will Feast: Rethinking Dinner, Worship and the Community of God. As a child, she spent afternoons with a friend making “concoctions” and learning to bake bread. Later, she says, “that developed into an interest in the Eucharist.” Vanderslice became a baker, earned master’s degrees in both gastronomy and theology, and began studying churches that host a full meal as the centerpiece of their services.
John Hawbaker spoke to Vanderslice about We Will Feast, neighborliness, abundance, and the spiritual act of baking.
Image: I’d love to hear about how you began exploring dinner churches and how common you think this type of service might be.
KV: When I was doing my food studies program at Boston University, I was studying commensality, which is the social dynamics of eating together. I began asking how my studies in gastronomy informed and were informed by my interest in the Eucharist.
And then I heard about St. Lydia’s, a [dinner] church in Brooklyn. And that kind of brought together all of these interests. When I took these theories of commensality and applied them to the Eucharist, my question became, Why would Christ give us a meal? And what happens when we understand and take the Eucharist as a part of an entire meal?
I became fascinated with St. Lydia’s, and in my talking it up, a friend said she had a pastor about 45 minutes away who was doing dinner church.
I went with her out to his dinner church and that was the first time I ever worshiped at the table, and the experience was transformative. We were talking about scripture and talking about the sermon as part of our worship service. We were asked very vulnerable questions. The centrality of community, and the work of forming us as community, was just so apparent.
As I’ve heard these stories and pulled them together, I can’t name it as anything other than a work of the spirit and movement of the spirit.
Image: You wrote that Simple Church, where you encountered this form of worship, eventually hired you, partly to minister to children. I sometimes have the privilege of serving communion at my own church, and it’s especially meaningful to serve a child — eager eyes, unabashed hunger and thirst. I’d love to hear more about your experience working with the kids. Did they participate in the dinner service, too?
KV: They did. The children were vital to understanding the power of the meal and the power of community.
At Simple Church, the children are involved in the service for all but about ten minutes. When we open the service, everyone is standing in a circle around the perimeter of the room and we sing and we pray to open our time, and then we take the bread of Eucharist.
There’s one little girl — she’s about two years old — and every single time you’d see this sparkle in her eyes, just so excited for the bread. There was something about that bread that enticed her, and I think this was true for all the kids. It wasn’t necessarily that they knew this was the sacrament, some sort of internal knowledge that this was Christ’s body. But I think it was more this practice of taking communion in community again and again forms us and shapes us, and the children were being formed in such a way as to crave this moment.
They would eat and then they would leave the room for a bit while the adults had conversation, and then they could come back for a time of worship. And again, they would dance around the room the entire time and then we would close with the grape juice or wine portion of the Eucharist. And everyone had giant mason jars…so there was just such a picture of abundance, that the sacrament is a sacrament of abundance.
Image: As you traveled to research the book, which conversations with dinner church leaders, or nights spent around dinner church tables, stand out in your mind? Do you have a favorite story?
KV: One of the churches that really sticks with me is actually Southside Abbey in Chattanooga. Southside Abbey is an Episcopal church that meets in the Hart Gallery, which is an art gallery for non-traditional artists, and often folks who have unstable housing situations or various other limitations, and they create and sell their art in this gallery. But on Friday nights the gallery closes and the church has their service there, and a lot of the artists from the gallery attend the service as well as lots of other folks.
One of the leaders at the church told me she had lived in Chattanooga for a long time and she would see folks sitting on the library steps, and sometimes see folks pitching their tents under a bridge, but never really paid much mind to them. And then she had been attending Southside Abbey for a while and really getting to know all of the people who were there. And she began to realize she knew every person who was sitting on the library steps, every person who was pitching their tent under the bridge — because these were the people she worshipped with.
She said it really caused her to be able to see people where she had never seen them before. “These are my neighbors and I know their names and I know their story.” And it completely shifted her relationship to the city that she lives in.
Image: You wrote that “the gospel is a story of meals,” which isn’t an expression I’ve heard before. Tell me more about that insight, and about why our relationship to eating matters.
KV: When we see these connections between the story of Genesis, the creation and the fall, and the Eucharist, [we see] the eating of the fruit and the eating of the Eucharist — two meals.
One was a meal that subverted God’s desire for creation and then brought destruction into the world. And the other is the meal that reverses the curse of the first. It’s a meal that brings life, but it came through the death of Christ. And so I see two meals as the stakes that ground this grander story of the Gospel and the story that is continuing to be unfolded — it’s grounded in the act of eating. An act of eating that leads to the breakdown of creation and then an act of eating that leads to healing it.
We were created out of the soil and tasked by God to care for creation and to delight in creation. Our two primary needs at the beginning of creation were to eat and be in community — we need other humans. And you know, God could have created us like the plants where we could draw nutrients from the sun through chlorophyll. But we eat, and in eating together, it is this meeting of our deepest needs in the ways that can also bring us some of the deepest delight and pleasure.
Even the Eucharist itself, it’s the sacrament that is healing and the sacrament that draws us together. And yet it’s also been this great point of division throughout all of church history. My question then becomes “how do we eat in a way that restores creation, rather than a way that contributes to this destruction of creation?”
Image: How can bringing people together over a meal affect them in ways that other forms of worship might not?
KV: From the food studies perspective, the very practical side of things, the presence of food, the act of eating is an overt act and the act of eating together is this communal act that attunes us to our insufficiency and our need for one another. Our reliance on something outside of ourselves just to live. Our reliance on food. But the theological understanding is realizing our deep reliance on God, on one another and on the created world to exist at all.
The act of eating is vulnerable, but the presence of something that we can hold disarms our tensions. It gives us something to do with our bodies. It makes us more comfortable…in such a way that makes it safer for us to enter in some to some of these more vulnerable conversations.
Image: Shifting gears a bit, I would describe your writing as being filled with concrete images that ground the reader, but also having a poetic rhythm. I know you’re a fan of Robert Farrar Capon, but can you talk about him or your other literary influences?
KV: Yeah, I would say Capon and M.F.K. Fisher are the two people who most inform the way I see food and the ways I write about food. Both of them follow this very poetic rhythm and also have these poetic imaginations around food and healthy functions.
One of the driving questions for me in the last couple of years as I’ve been studying gastronomy has been, “How do we write about food and what does it mean to write about food in a theological way?” Because while I’m looking at this relationship between the word and bread and what it means for Christ to be the Word and also what it means for Christ to be bread, I’m believing that there’s a deep relationship in that that should inform the way I write about food.
We can’t understand this deep theological connection to food outside of words, outside of writing, outside of speaking. It’s such an elemental part of our lives that it becomes really hard to speak about in any kind of profound or beautiful way.
Image: You’ve written about the joy you find in baking bread. Can you tell me both about the physical process and what you experience mentally and emotionally each step of the way?
KV: For me the process of making bread is about my entire body. I can’t always articulate exactly what it is that’s happening, which is part of what I think is so powerful. That it’s this form of prayer and of communing with God that can’t be articulated into words.
But this process of just feeling bread, of knowing the process of making dough with my body in such a way that I don’t have to measure, but that I can feel when it’s correct and I can feel what it needs…It’s very tactile knowledge of this food and of this act of creation.
It’s incredibly grounding, incredibly calming, and for me it’s just this process through which I’m deeply aware of God’s presence with me.
And sometimes I use the process of making bread explicitly for prayer. I actually have specific things that I’m working through and I use this process of kneading to really speak those things and to pray those things in actual words. And sometimes it’s just a prayer in silence, where I myself do not have words and trust that the spirit prays for me.
And you know, I am creating something that will meet someone else’s physical needs even as I pray for their spiritual needs.
Image depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
+ Click here to make a donation.
+ Click here to subscribe to Image.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: John Hawbaker
John Hawbaker lives and writes in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His work has appeared in The Morning News, Bitter Southerner, Fathom, The Curator and Ekstasis. John co-writes Tributaries, a monthly newsletter about heart and craft in great writing, available through Tiny Letter.