Why food is important in multicultural contexts

I have written before about the importance and value of food when it comes to fellowship and discipleship. You can read what I have said about that here. I think we are often quick to rubbish or overlook the fact that Jesus “ate his way through the gospels”. Here was a man accused (wrongly) of being a glutton and a drunkard simply because he ate and drank with people so very regularly. But the accusation didn’t stem from nowhere! Clearly, eating and drinking with people, enjoying hospitality and fellowship together, matters at least a little bit. I am minded to think this matters even more when it comes to living and working in a multicultural context.

We have recently started to have some church BBQs in our (fairly recently) improved outdoor area. We decided it would be sensible to get three separate BBQs: an Anglo-American one, an Iranian one and a halal one. NB: just in case you are wondering, these are not brands or types of BBQ; all three BBQs are identical models. It made sense to have a separate one that would be uncontaminated for those who would only eat halal food and to have three so different kinds of food can be cooked.

There are several reasons why food is so important in our multicultural context. Naturally, it is a point of contact for those we can invite in. People are drawn in with food. We want to extend a welcome to our community and the cultures roundabout are very much hospitable, food-based cultures. The bottom line is that people recognise hospitality when they see it. Naturally, we want them to see and experience it from us. So, food is quite important.

But inside the church I think it matters too, beyond the things I wrote in my original article. When somebody has almost no English and there is no means to communicate, they very often can and do still invite you to share food with them. It is a way they can serve you and show you that they care, even if they can’t easily communicate that in words.

It is equally an important way we can show an interest in another’s culture. Working and meeting with people from all over the world has shown me at least one thing: people are very proud of their cuisine. Often, they really miss the food in their home country. Lots of our Iranian friends love to BBQ and make koobideh. Others are keen to show us food from their particular region. I appreciate few people are wowed when I showcase Oldham rag pudding, but these guys are very proud of their local cuisine and, more than that, want you to share in it with them. It is not just hospitality, but sharing with you an important part of their culture.

I think it is also a great ice-breaker for us. What do you say to a guy who hasn’t got more than a few words of English and doesn’t understand a great deal of what you’re saying? But offer him a plate of food and he knows you care. If he cooks something for you, albeit with a lot of a pointing and thumbs up and things, you can express thanks for the food and that you are really enjoying the hospitality. All of these things make a huge difference to people.

Many of these things will also pay dividends down the line. The guy who can’t speak English right now will almost certainly learn later on. The one who could only say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ will, in a few months or years, be able to communicate far more. But they will remember you sharing food with them. They will remember you trying to engage. They will remember wanting to serve you and your delight at sharing their cuisine. All these things will be remembered and, when communication improves, lays the groundwork for your friendship to develop along with it. But much of it happens and works when you build it around food.

So, I think we should revisit Jesus’ eating with people again. I think that pattern is there for a reason. I think Jesus was called the friend of sinners because he ate with sinners. Eating together is a sign that we are, or at least want to be, friends. I think sharing in cuisine across cultural lines is a great way to build such friendships and enjoy fellowship together.