According to your spiritual beliefs, the social customs of eating together and feeding the masses within religious communities have been around since, well, the beginning of time.
From Jesus’ miraculous feat of feeding thousands of people with just two fish and five loaves of bread, to the Islamic parable of Muhammed providing food to over 40,000 believers for 40 days, the stories of charismatic leaders helping the masses with manna promises from heaven are not new. . And Judaism can be thanked for lending this style of table meal to Christianity.
For the African American community, community church meals have become a pillar – a safe space to celebrate, a place of freedom. During the period of slavery in the United States, the black community generally received rationed portions of food on Saturday evenings, paving the way for the preparation and sharing of these limited foods in the traditional “Sunday dinners” that are now common. .
Sunday was also the only day of rest received by many slaves, making eating after church services a truly special occasion. In “There’s Nothing Like Church Food: Food and the US Afro-Christian Tradition”, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, author Jualynne E. Dodson notes that after the abolition of slavery, many have carried on this tradition of Sunday meals and fellowship with family and others in their new lives.
In the Bible there are many stories of shared meals, often linked to the promise of freedom. African slaves interpreted them as parables foreshadowing their own tastes of freedom after slavery. As a result, West and Central Africans, most of whom were forcibly converted to Christianity, also began to incorporate foods into their festive eating habits while simultaneously remembering their own cultures.
Today there is a long tradition in African American churches. After the preaching, singing and praying is over, everyone heads to the church dining room for Sunday dinner.
At the start of the 19th century, black churches in the South began hosting traditional open-air Sunday afternoon dinners, known in many circles as “dinner on the ground.” Some even sold plates of the “Gospel Bird” alongside spoons of tangy mustard yellow potato salad, slowly cooked bitter greens, and strawberry iced soda as a way to raise money for everything from building fund for political activism, as Georgia Gilmore did during the Civil Rights days.
Some black churches have made an even more direct connection to food by organizing their services in renovated restaurants. In 1961, the late Reverend Lobias Murray opened his first church, Full Gospel Holy Temple, in South Dallas, and neighbors quickly dubbed it âMurray’s Barbecue CafÃ©â. Due to its previous existence as a barbecue spot, the planks and walls gave off a pungent smell of slow-cooked Texan beef brisket as the congregation trampled on its services.
Black churches frequently opened churches in old storefronts, just as Murray had done, in the hope of bringing the Word of God closer to communities. It also offered affordable solutions to rental space issues.
In the 1930s, an oral history project interviewing once enslaved men and women was collected and sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. Among those documents was a personal account shared by Rosie Washington, 90, who at the time lived in West Texas. She told stories of enslaved people hiding in the woods on Sundays to attend church services because they were not allowed to practice a religion in public. She looked after the children of the plantation owners on Sundays, then rushed to the makeshift church later hidden away to meet her family and friends by the river. Once there they worshiped and fried fish. While it wasn’t called Field Dinner, the concept is surprisingly similar.
Father Jealous Divine, a controversial but magnetic Southern leader who rose from poverty to notoriety, moved to New York City in the early 1900s and had progressive ideologies for the time. He founded the International Peace Mission movement and preached his hopes for a utopian society that promoted radical beliefs of equal rights for all races and genders. He often used food to bring people together.
At the height of the Great Depression, he asked his “angels” – as he referred to his flock – to pay only if they could afford a dime or 15 cents to share a meal at one of the its lavish banquets which frequently served such foods as gospel bird, duck, ribs, potatoes, stewed tomatoes, green beans, fruit salad and chocolate cake. Under his leadership, the membership skyrocketed. It can’t be determined whether his decision to serve food was the cause of his popularity, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
Although far from Reverend Divine’s abundant banquets, my own memories of communal religious meals were feasting on lazy Sunday afternoons at my little Full Gospel Holy Temple church in Sherman, TX.
For us, the Field Dinner was often an annual event in which, after church services were over, members shared the main dishes, sides and desserts they prepared, neatly stored in the neat corners of the floor. their car for transportation.
Not only was everyone encouraged to contribute at least one class, it was BYOTC (bring your own tables and chairs by means of folding tables and lawn chairs). Sometimes those of us with a truck would open the bed and use it as a makeshift table to contain the massive spread.
This rite was the most popular at our annual Homecoming celebration. It allowed me and my friends to swap our formal church dresses for our long denim skirts and Keds as we watched the boys play soccer in the large empty field next to our church. . A shared outdoor meal seemed to sum up our feelings for the afternoon perfectly.
The practice of community food sharing thrives with many churches, including the current location of the sacred Full Gospel Temple, now run by Murray’s grandson, Apostle Herman L. Murray Jr. Today’s celebrations ‘Hui persist, though some have evolved to include elaborate tents and fans to accommodate the sweltering Texas heat instead of outdoor tables on cobblestone parking lots.
Deah Berry Mitchell is a freelance writer and cultural historian from Dallas.