On Sundays right now we're hearing several installments of Jesus' “Bread of Life” discourse from the Gospel according to John.
So it was timely to read Lauren Winner's essay “Bread” in the Spring 2015 Issue of Image. In it she tells us of her reading of Psyche A. Williams-Forson's Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power. I found compelling her recounting what Williams-Forson writes about black women packing shoe box lunches for family members who were setting off on a trip. We read of the Darden sisters, who recall staying up late the night before a trip to help their mother pack box lunches:
“which contained a bounty of goodies: fried chicken, peanut butter and jelly, deviled eggs, chocolate layer cake, nuts, raisins, and cheese. Except for the thermos of lemonade, 'everything was neatly wrapped in wax paper' and tucked into shoe boxes, 'with the name of the passenger Scotch-taped on so that special requests were not confused.' Even as young girls, the Dardens knew these lunches were about traversing dangerous terrain.”
Here Winner gives us an extended quote from the Darden sisters to explain why these box lunches were necessary:
“These trips took place during the fifties, and one never knew what dangers or insults would be encountered along the way. Racist policies loomed like unidentified monsters in our childish imagination and in reality. After the New Jersey Turnpike ended, we would have to be on the alert for the unexpected. So, as we approached that last Howard Johnson's before Delaware, our father would make his inevitable announcement that we had to get out, stretch our legs, and go to the bathroom, whether we wanted to or not. This was a ritualized part of the trip, for, although there would be many restaurants along the route, this was the last one that didn't offer segregated facilities. From this point on, we pulled out our trusty shoe box lunches.”
We also are told about the experience of Gail Milissa Grant, who grew up in St. Louis in the 1940's, who has similar recollections. We read that her parents:
“...often went to the Union Station not to pick up anyone but to feed their friends. My mother would prepare a meal and carefully select the menu for its shelf life since it would have to last for hours without spoiling. Negroes could not “receive service” on trains until later in the 1950s, so they had to travel with their own food. The Negro Pullman porters couldn't even serve other Negroes....On long journeys, my mother's would be one in a string of meals, with other friends doing the same thing along the route.”
Mrs. Darden and Mrs. Grant's food preparation is the best picture I have found for understanding God as a provider of food. Here is God preparing food for the Israelites journeying in the wilderness: God is not just abstractly raining coriander flakes down from the heavens. God is staying up late to prepare shoe box lunches for people on a perilous journey.
And this is the bread with which Jesus most explicitly identified—manna, journeying bread. Jesus as manna: fried chicken, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, deviled eggs, chocolate layer cake, all carefully packed into a small box. Jesus, a traveler's lemonade in a thermos. Jesus as manna, the bread that sustains oppressed people on a journey through an unwelcoming land.”
Ill think of this the next time I come to the Eucharist, in which the Church remembers Christ under the form of food and drink. My experience is not like that of the Darden sisters or Gail Milissa Grant. I don't have their experience of oppression in memory.
Nonetheless, taking the body and blood of Jesus under the forms of bread and wine puts us in company with all people who have journeyed through dangerous lands, as he journeyed through a dangerous land. Communion with Jesus means becoming one with everyone; with the concerns of all God's people, and knowing ourselves to be on a journey toward the kingdom of heaven, where reconciliation is in store for all creation. I can't help but think of the hymn text by William Williams:
“Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
hold me with thy powerful hand;
bread of heaven, bread of heaven,
feed me now and evermore,
feed me now and evermore.”