In January we began a new evening service geared towards young people and young adults.
Before the services we instigated a social space for the young people – time to gather and hang out before church. With DONUTS. Jam donuts. Sainsbury’s Jam Donuts.
After a few weeks, one very shy young person came with his mum to speak to me. It took him a little while to be so critical but we eventually figured out that he doesn’t really like donuts and was wondering why we didn’t get cookies or brownies or something instead?
Now, every week, I buy something other than donuts.
Is that important? Is that a vital part of my work with young people?
I run a group on Tuesday evenings for 16-24 year olds, thats a safe social space for those who have graduated from the Camden Spear Centre. Every week we have dinner together; pizza, fajitas, lasagna and salad. It is not impressive but it is transformative.
In a previous job, my wife and I frequently had a group of young people to our house for dinner. When we chose furniture, we purposefully chose some extra chairs which fit inside our leafed table, so that we could host the young people. On one occasion, one young person said that it was the first time that he’d actually sat around a table and eaten dinner – everyone in his house ate dinner in their rooms.
The demographic of the young people involved in these experiences is very different; Christian, Muslim, Atheists; in private school, on benefits, middle class; those headhunted as future leaders of our country and corporations, those discounted because of SEN and those battling severe mental health issues. I could go on about the disparity, but you get the idea.
Food is the great level teaspoon.
Sharing meals together is more than simply consuming the food and converting it to energy – it is a spiritual and emotional experience where we all can encounter the love of Father, Son and Spirit. Unlike “oops I dropped the Lemon tart” from the worlds best restaurant, this experience is no accident.
Yahweh has always cared deeply about food and its significance to our relationship with Him.
From shared meals in the garden, to defining our rebellion through food; His faithful provision in the Exodus to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey; using famine as one tool to bring his people back to him; Daniel and co.’s decision to draw the line on Babylonian culture around the food they would eat; Jesus’ first miracle turning water into wine or his first temptation to solve his own hunger by using his divinity. “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of Yahweh”. He feeds 5000 and then somewhat less impressively 4000 before telling everyone he himself is the bread of life and they need to eat his flesh rather than seek after the next food related party trick.
In our need to eat food and our desire to do so in community, everyone is the same. Through this, Yahweh has given us a window into our need and desire for the giver of all food and all community. Communion is exactly that – united as people in need of a saviour partaking of the meal which is the body and blood of Jesus, that allows us to commune with our Father in heaven.
Jokes are often made about youth workers and food – mostly around youth events keeping the cheap and cheerful pizza industry in business. That may be true, but it is such an important part of what we do. Perhaps it is more important than even we, as youth workers, understand – let alone those who already think we drink milkshakes and play table tennis all day. Sharing meals with young people, be they snacks on Sundays, cooking classes in the week, meals in restaurants or in homes are times when our collective need for connection with each other and with Yahweh is met; an antidote to our individualistic culture and individualised salvation in this shared meal of equality. No longer the powerful leader and the impoverished young person but two hands fighting over that last slice of Texas BBQ. It is, in the truest sense, work we do “with” rather than “for” or “to” young people. Therein lies its power.
In eating with young people we partake in an eschatological exercise. A window into the future hope when we will feast – not out of need for sustenance but to enjoy Yahweh and to enjoy each other and to enjoy food. Eating from the Tree of Life because we can now enjoy our eternity together, restoring the fruit ridden fall and our banishment from the garden lest we become immortal in our sin (Genesis 3). Enjoying food for its own sake is a helpful emotional tonic of its own. When so many have an unhealthy connection with eating (in a huge number of different ways and across gender) the ability to relax and enjoy Yahweh’s creation and provision is restorative and redemptive. In doing so we have a responsibility to step away from constant junk and towards good nutritious food. This may also mean small steps – such as the salad that goes with our Tuesday chicken strips rather than chips. The bowl of fruit at staff meeting as well as cake.
Food, glorious food. How we use food in our work with young people can bring glory to Father, Son and Spirit, it can reflect and point to a glorious future with hope and celebrating and feasting.