Monday, June 20, 2022

Maria Van Der Maaten: With Bread

Today's post is by Dr. Maria Van Der Maaten. Dr. Van Der Maaten is a sociologist of food and agriculture and community development expert. She is also a United Methodist layperson, clergy spouse, mom of two, and currently serves as the coordinator for the Iowa chapter of MFSA. This post is part of an occasional series on food and mission.

Food has always been important to my family: my grandma was famous for her Sunday lunches, my parents’ dinner parties are always amazing, and now, as a parent, I’ve been learning to make my mother-in-law’s rice-dough tamales for birthdays, Christmas, and New Year’s celebrations. As humans, many of us tend to see food as not just nourishment for our bodies, but our souls, connecting our emotions to what we put into our bodies. When our household celebrated All Saints Day for the first time, I knew the one thing that was missing wasn’t Mexican sweetbread, which is something many other altars had, but instead my grandmother’s saucisjes (a type of Dutch-immigrant food) or some almond patties (a Dutch letter-like pastry).

As someone who grew up eating most meals as a family, the idea that sharing a meal was something special or unique to holidays always surprised me. Perhaps it was because sharing a meal is such a familiar act to me, but mealtime is my favorite piece of the Sister Parish experience: I love to try new foods, I love to eat, and I love to talk with people (win, win, win).

For more than twenty years I have been involved in the work of Sister Parish, Inc. as a delegate, staff member, board member, and supporter. Sister Parish is an international non-profit organization that partners communities of faith in the U.S. with communities of faith in El Salvador or Guatemala to establish long-term relationships based on solidarity, ecumenism, reconciliation, and consciousness-raising.

These relationships focus on fomenting mutual understanding and a commitment to peace and justice among partners in both countries. Although other more traditional mission projects (i.e., construction, education, outreach) may follow once a relationship is well-established, creating and maintaining connections is the sole purpose of Sister Parish; any other projects are meant to further the community-to-community relationship, not replace it.

Sister Parish delegates travel North and South, staying in one another’s homes as an essential component of enhancing awareness and understanding and nurturing these personal relationships. As a staff person and delegate, one of the greatest privileges of Sister Parish experience and model was to be invited to someone else’s table. It was at the dinner table where I would learn more about the lives and histories of delegates and host families and see the connections between their seemingly dissimilar lives be forged, clarified, and relationships solidified.

At the Sister Parish dinner table, I learned intimate details about how families in El Salvador survived the armed conflict and the simultaneous suffering they endured; how they experienced the stages of grief and loss as their family members migrated to the U.S., but also the gratitude and relief at these family members’ sacrifice for them; I also learned how to make some of the foods they have shared with me, the time, effort, prayers, and luck that goes into planting and harvesting the corn that ultimately makes the tortillas; and how sharing a meal is an act of radical love and hospitality.

This act of radical love and hospitality, inviting someone unknown (or hardly known) into your home, your kitchen, to try your cooking, is hard to replicate in other ways. Understanding this has also given me a new appreciation for the words “compañero” or “compañera,” which are usually translated as “companion” or “friend.” As I learned more Spanish, I also learned more about the Latin roots of the words: com = with, pan = bread.

I have a deep appreciation for the Spanish word “compañero,” because it is a friendship that goes beyond simply being one’s neighbor or fellow committee member or colleague; there is an intimate relationship that comes from having broken bread together. I don’t know that we have a word with the same depth of meaning in English. Or maybe, sadly, in our hurried U.S. culture, in which shared meals are reserved for holidays and special events, we simply don’t understand what true compañerismo could mean.

While many of us continue to isolate awaiting vaccines for young children and lower rates of transmission, we miss participating in these extended family gatherings and celebrations that include food. Sister Parish delegations were moved to a virtual platform for everyone’s safety as well. There is a sense of loss and a need to mourn the connections we previously shared and opportunities to learn, even if temporary.

However, this hiatus also serves as an important reminder of the joy of a simple, shared meal and deep conversation, especially with people who would have otherwise been strangers. Because those who are part of the Sister Parish family understand the transformative power of food. Once we break bread together, we aren’t strangers, but compañeros.

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