A hand reaches for a bowl of herbs

Re-imagining Community Around The Table

Karen GiesbrechtBlog, Church, COVID-19, Mental Illness, Resources, Spiritual Practices, Theology

“If I hadn’t come here tonight, I would not have eaten today,” said Luke, my table mate at the Kits Cares Cafe, a community dinner hosted by several local churches at the Kits Neighbourhood House on the west side of Vancouver, BC. This was a few months ago, when we could still gather without fear of picking up or passing on a deadly virus.

I was not sure if Luke was talking to me or just reflecting out loud. I had met Luke at a few community food programs around Vancouver, and knew he lived in a supportive housing facility on a disability income that did not leave much for food and other necessities. I do not know much about Luke’s history or mental health status, but his physical appearance suggests that life is not easy for him.

From a few previous interactions, I do know that Luke has some artistic talent and can deftly work his way through a stack of dirty dishes, but he is less inclined to do his own housekeeping. He gets overwhelmed by the clutter in his studio apartment, but he does not have the capacity to sort it. An infestation of bedbugs had swept through his building a year ago, and he lost most of his furniture, including a dresser with important papers. Because of that, he had not done his taxes on time, and he had almost lost the meager benefits he relies on. Through the network of community food programs in Vancouver, he had connected with a volunteer accountant at a church-run tax clinic. They had worked through that stress together, though Luke has plenty of other challenges to face every day.

This day, Luke looked more frazzled than usual. It was partly uncombed hair and a rip in his shirt, but more because of the nervous energy I had not seen in him before. “Rough day?” I asked, figuring there was a story that might need to tumble out.

Luke took a few more bites of his dinner, and then started to talk about a tension with his neighbour that had flared up earlier that afternoon. There had been enough yelling and threats exchanged for the police to be called. Fortunately, they were able to resolve the tension before it escalated to physical violence, and no charges had been laid.  Luke had been warned that if this happened again, he could lose his home, and that was weighing on him. I refilled his water glass three times as he told his story. Dehydration erodes our capacity to cope, yet it is hard to reach for water when our bodies are craving sweet, caffeinated, quick energy.

Luke, like many of his peers, is not usually an aggressive person, but his resilience is low, especially when he has neither eaten nor connected with a supportive community in a few days. Small frustrations can easily trigger strong reactions and snowball into destruction.

As his story wrapped up, I asked Luke if he would bus tables for a few minutes. We did not really need the help, but I figured Luke would feel better about himself if he did some meaningful work that night. It would have been quicker to clear the plates at our table myself, but efficiency was not important in that moment. We worked together for a few minutes, then I connected Luke with another volunteer and they bussed tables together for the next while.

Before leaving, Luke thanked me for dinner. I know that he has faith, though he struggles to connect with a church community. We prayed, thanking God that the situation had not been worse and that Luke would keep his home (for now). We prayed for Luke’s relationship with his neighbour and the building manager, and for the police officer who had been kind to Luke that afternoon. I found some bread, apples, and peanut butter to send with Luke, and he promised to have breakfast before leaving his apartment the next day.

The “Lukes” in Vancouver—and there are a lot of them—do not need pity, food lines, day-old doughnuts, or groups walking through their neighbourhoods handing out sandwiches. They are better nourished by being part of a community, sharing a full meal with others (I strongly suspect that the vegetables on Luke’s plate at the community dinner were the only ones he had consumed in a few days), and then working together. That night, Luke could have also used a sewing kit and someone to sit with him for a few minutes to help fix the rip in his shirt.

Tune in to our Mental Health, Faith, and COVID-19 podcast episode with Karen Giesbrecht

COVID-19 has turned our world upside down, exposing new vulnerabilities and putting some at risk of food insecurity who were not previously in need of food or financial aid.  Pre-pandemic estimates were that one in ten households in British Columbia experience inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints, and those numbers are increasing here and around the world.  We are acutely aware of the hunger for connection and safety that we all experience.

This pandemic has also exposed deeper wells of creativity and compassion throughout our communities. In order to meet urgent needs, supportive programs have rapidly launched or radically shifted in practice. When I visit food programs that are still operating, including the one where I shared a meal with Luke a few months ago, they are almost as heartbreaking as heartwarming. I am thankful to greet and be greeted by friends, but so many of the caring practices that were built into our community meals are suddenly gone.

  • Rather than share a meal and connect with our neighbours, we sanitize, put on gloves, set each portion of food on a little table, then step back before we invite guests one at a time to step forward and pick their food up. 
  • The food we have to share is often canned, prepackaged, or a cold entrée, a few pieces of fruit, and a loaf of donated day-old bread, rather than a hot, freshly made meal.
  • The inviting café space inside our church and community halls has been replaced with a line-up, outside, some weeks in the rain.
  • Physical distancing requires us to say many times, “please step back,” though that feels rude and goes against every lesson of hospitality I was raised with (except that we need tough love at times).
  • Sustainability is overshadowed by the necessity of using disposable cups, cutlery, and to-go containers.
  • We have to limit ourselves to a small number of volunteers so that no one gets too close to one another, and we cannot invite guests to share in the joy of hosting each other.

As we settle into our new rhythms for the foreseeable future, we are beginning to have time to reflect on existing programs, and even to raise our eyes to the horizon beyond this current crisis. Community meals will play a key role in the economic and social recovery of our neighbourhoods and parishes.  With all that on our plates, we are pleased to share with you our first draft of A Table for All: a Toolkit for Christian Community Meals in a Framework of Food Justice. With this toolkit, we aim to offer you a springboard for connecting with communities of faith as you create, host, partner, or rethink community meal programs in your own context. We sincerely desire for you, in reading and using this guide, to know that you are not alone in this vital work.

This toolkit was developed collaboratively by Christ Church Anglican Cathedral, Planted Community Food Network, and Union Gospel Mission in Vancouver, British Columbia. We share a commitment to modelling, teaching, and accompanying other organizations as they orient their food programs towards social inclusion and deeper justice. We invite feedback on the content, as we know it will need to deepen and expand as we learn together how justice translates into food and table fellowship.

Karen Giesbrecht is a registered dietitian with a particular interest in mental health, strong communities, good stories, and real food. She wove all these together in Happy Colon, Happy Soul: An Exploration of Why and How We Share Food. At home in Vancouver, Canada, Karen takes great delight in sharing good meals with her family, friends, and those in her community who know hunger. Connect with her at karen@plantednetwork.ca.