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Social Action, Food and Relationships

Social Action, Food and Relationships

Hannah Rich reflects on the importance of hospitality and relationships in Christian social action. 10/07/2018

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In the course of my work on the GRA:CE project, I frequently visit churches running social action projects which centre on a table and a meal. Sometimes, this looks like a typical ‘soup kitchen’, feeding those who might otherwise go without. In some church halls, the food is served at the table to guests, with regular seats and cutlery laid out for those who come each week for a chat over lunch. Elsewhere, it takes the form of a working café within the church building.

The food might be donated by local businesses, grown by volunteers in the churchyard garden or lovingly prepared and brought by members of the congregation. On one visit, I paid two pound coins for one of the best cooked pieces of steak I’ve ever eaten and still had change for chocolate cake and strawberries afterwards – all of which had been rescued from a local supermarket that couldn’t sell it and which would have been destined for the bin otherwise.

Sometimes the meal follows the Sunday service, produced by the whole community or grown in the garden behind the church. Almost always, the food on offer reflects something of the character of the local community. It might be in the flatbread, the different varieties of meat stew or the man who brings his own bottle of hot sauce to church just in case.  

More often than not, though, the food itself is almost incidental to what it can facilitate.

The Spanish language has a word – sobremesa – for the bit of life that happens round the table after a meal; the hours whiled away together in conversation once the food has all been eaten and the plates cleared. It is a simple but beautiful concept, based on the idea of not rushing away from the table but sitting with each other for a while and continuing whatever discussions had begun during the meal – being present with each other and enjoying good company.

Having someone to eat with is as important for wellbeing as having something to eat. Food is often the thing that enables relationship and conversation, regardless of whether it is people’s most pressing need. It is not only in areas or parishes which are classed as ‘materially deprived’ that community is important; loneliness does not respect socioeconomic status.

Churches and the community projects they run are places where, in the words of Psalm 68, ‘the lonely are placed in families and can find friendship’, not just a checklist of needs and how they can be met. Social action is about more than service delivery or beneficiaries. Its power is in the fact that it is about relationships between real people in a way that state provision rarely is. It is indiscriminate and relational, not restricted either by people’s eligibility to receive it, or by state or organisational capacity to give it.

One church I visited recently runs a ‘social eating space’ in its community centre, providing a cheap weekly meal for anyone who wants it. Those who organise it stressed that describing it in these terms – rather than as a soup kitchen, for example – was central to its purpose. It is by its very nature social, as well as being a space for eating. Details of your life are remembered from week to week, where one Wednesday’s conversations of sobremesa get picked up again the following week, where whatever battle you were facing the last time you shared this table is remembered and asked after with love.

That is not to say that soup kitchens aren’t valuable, or in any way to stigmatise those who benefit from those sorts of projects. Rather, it highlights that what this particular community needed was for the church to be generous with resources like its space, its kitchen and its location in the heart of the community. If it was completely free, one person suggested, the community wouldn’t come because they might assume it was only intended for people with greater or more obvious material needs than their own, rather than those in need of simple hospitality and a place to be known.

To draw the clear parallel, the last thing Jesus shared with his disciples before he left was a meal, simple, present, round a table, together with those he knew and loved. Our theologies of the breaking of bread are well rehearsed in our communion rites and practices; we know the bread and wine they shared is significant. But of the biblical narratives, only John’s gospel really lets us in the sobremesa conversations of the Last Supper. I would hazard a guess that they were snapshots of the sort of relationships that occur round tables across the country, the sort that are built over time.

As is the case in church buildings across the country, perhaps the food is only half the story.

 Image by Monkey Business Images under a Shutterstock license

Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a senior researcher working on theology and economic inequality. She is the author of ‘A Torn Safety Net’ (2022).

Watch, listen to or read more from Hannah Rich

Posted 10 July 2018

Charity, Churches, GRA:CE Project, Social Action


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