It should have been the easiest meal I have made for a church dinner, only cooking for 50ish people. It should have been an opportunity to make something with the new spring vegetables and lighter appetites in mind. Delightful salads, an enticing chicken entree, oh the dessert I should have been able to concoct. The hours I would have spent perusing recipes and considering options, then shopping for the best ingredients to fit my budget and then the prep, I love the prep. I so enjoy preparing meals for those I serve at church, a means for me to express my joy in caring for them. It should have been like this but wasn’t. I was recreating a meal served in prison before we screened the documentary 13th to those expecting a real dinner. Everything was about this meal was wrong, difficult, against how I serve.
About a month ago, our group finished reading ‘The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander and wanted to do something, wanted to take action. We agreed to watch the movie together and invite others to join us, I volunteered to organize the evening with our group leader Suzanne. As she and I met, I wondered with her about serving a meal before, a re-creation of a meal served in prison and she embraced the idea immediately. We knew that we couldn’t tell anyone, they had to be caught off guard to get the full experience, to feel the shock. We did research, printed out information from The Marshall Project that included pictures of real meals served in institutions across the country. Still, as the date drew near, we realized that we were being called to do something incredibly different, something completely outside of ourselves. We were being asked to shut down, not care, do the least, the littlest. It was powerful for us, just in the preparation, we could only pray that it had such an impact on those who dined with us.
I shopped not looking for the finest but the cheapest way to make the least tasty meal, nutrition was not even a factor. We settled on a meal of rice with peas and chicken, beans, two slices of white bread and two pats of butter, a cup of juice and a slice of cake, just like one of the pictures we found. At each turn, we had to remember not to add seasoning, not to dress it up, no chicken broth in the rice, no homemade icing for the cake. Canned chicken, canned peas. Serving the meal without concern about temperature, trays left on the counter to get cooled, no friendly smiles as my friends walked up with surprised faces. “Juice is on the tray, grab your silverware, eat in the sanctuary.” We handed out only spoons, no knives to spread the cold butter on the white bread, no wheat or fancy loaves cut for these people I usually love through food. I felt awful, I knew they would leave hungry.
Carol, who came to help prepare the meal, and Suzanne were experiencing the same conflict as I, the realization that we were in our church, serving our people and doing so meant we had to be cold. Normally during one of the meals I prepare for church, I wander about the tables and folks are laughing and talking, joyful sounds fill the sanctuary as communion is shared. This night the tables were quiet and solemn, I don’t know if everyone was rethinking their choice of attending or wondering if I had lost the ability to cook. Before each participant reached our counter to pick up their tray, they passed the table with pictures of real trays that inmates are served, thus I like to think they were in deep thought about what others are experiencing every day in prisons across the country.
We watched the documentary and had little time to process it after, breaking into smaller groups to answer 3 questions before we left for the night. The power of the movie is so great, we could have stayed for hours, we needed more time to hear each other and listen as those who were just learning about mass incarceration for the first time expressed disbelief and outrage. We didn’t have any time to ask about their experience of the meal portion, whether it added to the evening, how they felt receiving that tray. I wonder how their perception of the tray changed from before the movie to after. I trust this group, a very thoughtful collection of friends who care about others, that they were moved by it all.
Saturday evening late, just hours before our screening and cooking and serving, another black child was killed at the hands of a police officer. Jordan Edwards, a 16 year old black child was killed by a police while in a car driving away from a party, for no other reason that I can surmised than that he was black. He joins Amadou Diallo, Manuel Loggins Jr, Ronald Madison, Kendra James, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, and hundreds of others. Hundreds, is that number enough to make us act? Too many that we no longer believe it is real? Have we become cold and shutdown our feelings so that we don’t pay attention to the rising numbers of black and brown people who are being arrested and locked away in systematic racial profiling, cold and unfeeling because it doesn’t touch us in our sanctuaries with tasty meals and mostly white faces? So Suzanne and Carol and I did something outrageous and cold and it hurt our souls with the hopes that maybe the souls of those eating and watching might be further damaged just a bit as well. Until we all hurt for those in prison, they will stay there forgotten. Until we all hurt for those who are targeted by a war on drugs that creates profits for a few and decimates communities of the black and brown, we are disappointing our Jesus who asked us to go see Him in prison.
I made the worst meal ever and served it up on little trays to people I love and respect. I am haunted by the silence in the room, the faces of those who collected their food will stay with me. I pray we are all moved by this beginning awareness of social justice that Suzanne is bring to our congregation. I pray that someday those trays are a rarity, that news reports of another child killed after leaving a party are an ugly part of our history. We can all leave such events and grab a pizza on the way home, leaving the horror of the experience if we desire. Or maybe, just maybe, we can let our stomachs rumble and our hearts ache throughout the night as we listen to what God is calling us to do for his vulnerable children. It may mean we have to do really hard things, harder than making a disgusting meal to serve our friends.