• Caroline Penfield

Taste and See

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

When I started doing interfaith work a year ago, I had no idea what I was doing. I thought that interfaith was a confusing and convoluted concept that was far beyond my level of understanding. What I learned was that parts of interfaith can be hard and can leave those engaging in it confused. Interfaith has a goal, religious pluralism, but it is widely accepted that this is a difficult point to reach and that no one attempt will put society there. This is hard for me, a person who likes clear answers, to come to terms with. However, I learned that the work starts with a simple connection. I learned this through food.

Last year, about two weeks into my freshman year, I was hired to coordinate a new interfaith dinner program called Better Together. In my interview I had pieced together an answer that showcased my interfaith experience by talking about the annual community Thanksgiving dinner my home church hosted with local churches, synagogues, and mosques. I wasn’t sure if this meal really qualified as interfaith. To me it was just a meal. I hadn't participated in the deep conversations about how traditions work together that I thought were necessary to be doing interfaith. I felt unqualified. But, as I started to meet with the chaplains in the Truitt Center about how Better Together should go, I kept getting the same message, “Invite people to share a meal, and the rest will follow.”

Food is an important part of many traditions. Christians remember Christ by partaking in a meal of bread and wine during worship. In the past year, I have experienced the joy of a Shabbat dinner with my Jewish friends, and I have admired the strength of my Muslim friends fasting during Ramadan. The laws surrounding food in these traditions make religion part of the necessity of eating for those who practice. In traditions closely tied to other aspects of culture, the food of that culture becomes a symbol of the religion itself. When we host events at the Truitt Center, planning a menu which accommodates all dietary restrictions is essential. We don’t bring pork into the building because it is restricted in several traditions. We separate meat and no meat utensils and appliances as well. All of this is done in an effort to make those in the space comfortable. Food welcomes people, and feeling comfortable around a table allows people to open up.

The delicious Mediterranean Deli spread at the Eid Al-Adha festival 9/19/19

“The rest will follow.”

I thought I was failing at this for a while. When dinners would dissolve into catch-up sessions or stay at surface level descriptions of how the pre-chosen topic, I would think, “Why can’t my program lead to deep, earth-shaking discussions?” It took me about a semester and a half of learning about interfaith to realize that what I was doing was an important part of it. By providing a meal and a space, I was building the foundations for relationships not in spite of religious differences but because of them. This is the first step to all interfaith work. It is unrealistic to expect people to have life-changing conversations with each other if they don’t feel comfortable in a space. What gets college students to an event and makes them feel comfortable there? Food.

I don’t want to over simplify the aspects of interfaith that truly can be difficult. Interfaith will ask you to be vulnerable, to examine your biases, and to rethink what you once thought about the world and its inhabitants. But it won’t ask you to do that before you build relationships. When I was hired, I was so nervous. I had to be brought back to the basics. Gather people, feed them, and the rest will follow. Give yourself to the people who show up, and you will find that the simplest truths connect us.

In the language of my Christian tradition, this sounded like “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). This Psalm was written by David, someone who was definitely not perfect, but who had faith in God. This psalm implies that to know God, one has to take part in what God is offering. Taste, show up, to experience the goodness. When I started doing interfaith work I felt like God was offering me an opportunity to better understand the world. When I choose to lean in to this, to taste, I see that God and the world God created is good, and I have so much to learn from it.

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