One of my most memorable meals was experienced at a construction site on the outskirts of Tijuana. It came to mind recently as we approach Thanksgiving.
Here’s the context.
My congregation’s high school group went on a service project trip organized by Amor Ministries south of the border. Like “Habitat for Humanity,” Amor specializes in building basic housing for poor families. The owners of the house are responsible for securing title to the lot, leveling it, and sharing in the construction as they were able. Amor’s part was organizing work teams of 15 volunteers and purchasing the concrete, lumber, and other necessary building materials. They had created a simple, foolproof 40-page manual that allowed volunteers to build a basic, 2-room home with a concrete foundation, solid framing, stucco exterior, a waterproof roof, two windows and a door — all in the space of four days, and without the use of power tools.
An important aspect of the Amor experience: volunteers had to live near the site in a secured campground that did not have electricity or running water. They’d sleep in tents, cook their own food and learn how to use a 2-gallon plastic bottle for showers. For some teenagers, the prospect of going without hair dryers, electronic games, and hot showers was frightening. But that was the commitment.
Another key theme was cultural sensitivity. The orientation and oversight provided by Amor focused on the principle that the volunteers were not noble Americans displaying compassion on poor Mexican people, but members of the same human family working side-by-side for the betterment of all.
Every trip I went on was inspiring. Teenagers learned they could build something important with their hands using good teamwork, manual labor and common sense. They found living without everyday luxuries liberating. And they got to know ordinary Mexican families.
One year we had two teams working near each other. One of the owners told us she and a neighbor wanted to prepare lunch for us on the final day as an expression of gratitude. We were concerned. She did not have a kitchen and there were more than 30 of us. But she assured us it would be fine.
That morning a friend came over and they began the process. They made more than six dozen tortillas by hand. They chopped the onions, cilantro, and tomatoes she had bought. On a small hibachi, they built a fire and cooked the beef. I remember thinking, “Is it possible to feed this many people with such limited resources?” As noon approached, everything was ready. We joined hands with our hosts and shared a prayer of thanksgiving. Then we ate.
I grew up in California and have eaten tacos all my life. Those tacos were among the best tacos I’ve ever had. We were quiet as we savored them, amazed at the quality of the food, how it had been prepared and what it meant.
What made the meal so memorable?
- The tacos would have drawn raves from Anthony Bourdain and Julia Child.
- The feast was prepared with joy and gratitude.
- The experience of sharing it with our hosts created a human bond of affection that transcended language and culture.
I also have fond memories of interfaith potluck dinners involving Muslim, Jewish and Christian congregations. Everyone brought something special from their cultural traditions. Prayers were offered in different languages. The power of cross-cultural community was palpable – and the food was terrific.
One other setting for such feasts was the dining room at La Casa de Maria, the retreat center in Montecito where I served first as a board member and then Director. La Casa welcomed people of all backgrounds and spiritual traditions. Chef Rene was a culinary artist. He could bar-b-que hamburgers for a Catholic high school group one day and prepare a fabulous vegetarian meal for a Buddhist group the next. It was not unusual for several different groups to be going through the buffet line at the same meal – Narcotics Anonymous women, a farmworkers leadership team, a planning council of environmental activists, and participants in a mediation class. The guests came from different backgrounds and for different purposes. But they all raved about the food. They loved being at tables together. And in that room you could experience the power of diversity within a broader community.
We are approaching the Thanksgiving holiday. In America, that traditionally has meant a turkey dinner shared with family and friends. Wherever we will be, whatever we eat, and whoever we are with, may we be mindful of the varied feasts people share around the world. Some may focus on tacos and some on turkey, some with dahl and some with tabouli. But when delicious food is lovingly prepared, eaten in gratitude, and honoring all members of the human family, it’s more than a meal – it’s a table filled with grace.