Chewing on Meanings

Youths of various religions share food & conversation

Chewing on Meanings

By Callie Smith, Christian Theological Seminary

A few weeks ago I had an unexpected meal. Some young, Jewish people from Congregation Beth-El Zedeck here in Indianapolis hosted a group of Muslims and Christians (including me) for a tour of the synagogue and a conversation about our different religious holidays. It was part of an interfaith dialogue series involving middle school youth from Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, and Madrassa Tul Ilm where each congregation hosts a dialogue session at their own site. During each of these sessions, the young people offer a tour of the site and share in discussion of a topic chosen in advance. We all knew to expect this.

What I think few of us expected was how “fully illustrated” this discussion would be. Providing snacks is one thing, but the young people of the synagogue prepared a meal full of holiday foods, mixing and matching traditional Jewish foods from across the calendar year. The food was sweet, savory, delicious and rich, and all the more rich because of the stories our Jewish cooks told us about the histories, meanings and rituals surrounding different foods. We Christians and Muslims had questions and thoughts. We shared them. We ate. We laughed. We ate some more. When I left that evening, I was thinking that we don’t know just how meaningful food can be – and how different the meanings can be – until we’ve spent an hour chewing on that very thing! (Yes, the pun was intended). In the stories and traditions that families and communities share, food carries meaning. It sometimes even reaches the level of “sacred.”

How deep issues like hunger and poverty seem when we think of them as a lack of that which has sacred meaning. Hoosiers of different heritage, ethnicity and religious traditions interact with each other all over the place: parks, schools, groceries, workplaces, bus stops and airport terminals, government buildings and bars, and the list goes on. However, we rarely talk with each other about the spirit and meaning of things.

People of different backgrounds have so much to talk about. As I prepare to emcee the November 10th interfaith storytelling event “Unexpected Guests at the Table” as part of this year’s Spirit & Place focus on “Food for Thought” (November 5 – 14, 2010), I’m finding what a rich and spiritual meeting place that issues of the table can be.  I hope you will be able to join us for some of the festivities during this 15th year of the Spirit & Place Festival.

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