From China to Glenwood: adventures in diversity

I’m thinking about China today. I’m thinking about Glenwood, Illinois, too. And the two places are related in my mind because they both represent rich cultural opportunities for me.

Beautiful, fun diversity

I’ve spent this past week preparing for my church’s Taste of Reconciliation, which takes place in Glenwood tomorrow at 5:00pm. The Taste is an annual event that celebrates the beautiful diversity of my church’s congregation and the wonderful variety of churches in Glenwood and surrounding communities.

I love the Taste because it takes the edge off race relations. It makes it fun to be different—the more variety, the better! The more experiences, the richer the evening is for you. “Oh, you’re serving fried plantain? Ok, I’ll try some! …Hmm. Not my favorite, but thanks for sharing it!” No hard feelings. No big deal.

Breaking bread together can be a great way break down walls—as long as you divest the food of some (not all) of its emotional power. When I eat your fried plantain, I appreciate that it holds childhood memories of Nigeria for you, and I love hearing your stories about it. At the same time, you recognize that plantain holds no memories for me, and you don’t take it personally when I don’t fall in love with the fruit itself. You appreciate that I appreciate your memories of the food, if not the food itself, for it is those shared memories, not the plant or its preparation, that are important to our relationship.

A willingness to laugh

Breaking bread together also breaks down walls if you go into it with a spirit of adventure and a willingness to laugh at yourself. When I was in China about 15 years ago, I was blessed to travel with a number of people who relished new experiences. One evening, five of us met for dinner in the hotel before a meeting later that night. This hotel was not a typical tourist spot, and none of the waitresses spoke any English—and we spoke even less Chinese! The staff did manage to round up some menus that had English subtitles, so we could point to the dishes we wanted.

We didn’t realize as we were ordering that each dish was enough for about seven people. Jason’s soup came out first. He thought he had ordered just a cup for himself, so his eyes bugged out when the waitress brought out a half-gallon bowl and set it down in front of him. When she began ladling out some for each of us, we began to understand.

Glenwood and China
Fried carp with sweet and sour sauce (photo source: China Tours)
Each time they brought out another dish, they would set it in the middle of the table, so we were never exactly sure which dish it was. “Who ordered this?” we’d ask each other. “Is this the Buddha’s Delight? What is this?” But when my dish came out, there was no mistaking what it was. I had ordered the fried carp with sweet and sour sauce. What they brought out was a huge fish—head, eyes, tail, and all—elegantly arranged in a pool of brown sauce. We all howled with laughter when they set it down in front of me.

Now, this experience could have been much different if my fellow travelers and I had gone into it with a sense of entitlement or frustration rather than a sense of humor and adventure. Yes, we were hungry, we were tired, we were out of our element. But we enjoyed ourselves. And we ate well. In spite of its unexpected appearance, my fried carp was delicious.

To be fair, the staff at the hotel restaurant could also have handled the situation differently. I suppose they could have been offended that we didn’t speak their language, that we didn’t know what we wanted, that we were louder than anyone else in the room. For all I know, fried carp may be a delicacy deserving of much more respect than we gave it, but our hosts were gracious and patient. In spite of their initial befuddlement, they worked hard to meet our needs, and gradually they came to appreciate the comedy of the occasion, laughing at our “oohs” and “aahs” each time they set a new dish on the table. They helped us pronounce the Chinese names of our entrées, and I think they appreciated our attempts to eat with chopsticks.

All this to say, breaking bread together can be a rich opportunity to break down walls. It is no accident that my church’s Taste of Reconciliation is both a worship service and a food fest: by giving people opportunities to rub shoulders with each other over gyros, gumbo, egg rolls, and pierogi before the worship service, we prepare them to meet God in new ways, and to find it fun instead of frustrating.

A spirit of adventure

This will be, I believe, my fifth Taste of Reconciliation in Glenwood. As far as I know, we’ve never had a plantain dish there before. But I love the fact that Yefunde is bringing it this year to represent her Nigerian culture. I love the excitement I heard in her voice when she called to tell me about it. I love that even though this is her very first Taste of Reconciliation, she’s taking the initiative—her enthusiasm is contagious! I believe Yefunde is embracing this year’s Taste with the spirit of adventure that makes this celebration such a success!

The Taste of Reconciliation has been hosted by Living Springs Community Church in Glenwood, Illinois, every summer for nearly a decade, and everyone is welcome. Just show up with an appetite as large as your sense of adventure!

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