Wednesday, March 02, 2011

when meals become mission: learning from 9/11

A recent post at prodigal Kiwi is asking for resources to help churches think through their response to the February 22 Christchurch earthquake.

It caused me to recall the research done by John Koenig on how the church in New York responded after 9/11, which is written up in Soul Banquets: How Meals Become Mission in the Local Congregation. The book begins by interviewing Lyndon Harris, the priest at St Paul’s chapel. Manhattan’s oldest public building, the church closest to twin towers. Lyndon recalls how in the chaos after 9/11, the “many New Testament stories of Jesus’ words and actions at table came quickly to mind.”

So the church simply began serving food. First with volunteers running a street barbeque to feed the clean up crews. Once the church was deemed safe, they turned to serving meals in the shelter of the church.

They made a conscious decision to be a generous host. For them, this involved forming a partnership with a local restaurant to serve food and drink of the highest possible quality.

Some ten days after 9/11, they served communion. They offered this as an option, the liturgy up at the altar table but in a church filled with tables, heaped with food, around which everyday conversation continued. This moment, of food mixed with faith, proved an important and transformative moment of healing for numbers present that day.

Koenig concluded that one of the most healing thing done by churches through out New York in response to 9/11 was the decision to simply eat together. He wrote

“we have seriously undervalued our church meals, both ritual and informal, as opportunities for mission … to realize this potential, we, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, must have our eyes opened by the transforming presence of Christ at our tables.”

Another chapter in the book offers an interesting checklist on what it might means for meals to become mission. It suggests a new set of habits will be required. Mission meals is no slapping of food on a cold tin plate in a chilly church hall.


  • This is serving graciously with human contact. Koenig cites the example of one the busiest church food kitchen in New York, in which each volunteer is expected to find ways to encourage eye contact and genuine conversation.
  • This is setting tables, serving food, eating in patterns and places that speak of God’s abundance and creativity.
  • This is encouraging role reversals by finding ways for all, helper and hungry, to contribute through a diversity of gifts.
  • This is committing to a long-term, intentional project, a willingness to eat together a lot, because in that eating good things will happen.

So, for those wandering about how to be church in Christchurch, how to deal with so much physical loss, so much psychological trauma, so much grief and fear – start by simply eating together.

Posted by steve at 09:56 PM

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