Decentering White Theology With Potluck

Setting the Table

I love food. Let’s just get that out there now. I think about food a lot. The reason why I love food so much is not so much a gluttonous impulse as it is a full sensory memory maker for me. Food for me has always been a social endeavor. When you grow up Filipino, it’s hard to remember a time eating without the connection to who it is eating with you. When I cook Filipino food, I have no idea how to cook for under 20 people because our stewed recipes were meant to be ladled for several people and the always anticipated unexpected guests. Filipino food, as with most things in our hospitality oriented culture, is meant to be shared.

If you’re not Filipino, but you know one, chances are they have shared their food with you. NPR did a great little piece on Filipino workplace potlucks.  Potlucks for Filipinos reaches back into our memories of other meals shared. It reaches across the present as everyone and I mean EVERYONE is invited to the table. It also reaches to the future as the present potluck is another building block for memories stored of conversations, laughter, tastes, and smells. The Filipino potluck is the basis for family, community, and as far as I’m concerned theology.

My theology was shaped by Filipino potlucks. After the church service, we would pull out several long tables and then place on top of them dish after dish of someone’s specialty. While we piled our plates high with white rice, pancit, adobo, pinakbet, and bibingka for dessert, we would find a spot to sit and settle into the styrofoam plate pile of joy.

Family celebrations took the potluck concept a step further. At Christmas or Thanksgiving, we bring our best to one another. Each person has their specialty dish, and the group looks forward that dish by that person. Ate Tessa’s homemade dinner rolls, for instance, are talked about for weeks before the actual event. Uncle Dan is sure to bring the star protein, be it deep-fried turkey, prime rib roast, or sometimes both. Auntie Cecile’s fresh lumpia, my mom’s pancit, Cindy’s sausage stuffing, and so on. We each have our specialty and we each give our all to the dish. For instance, I’m often assigned the mashed potatoes (obviously, I’m not known as one of the better cooks). For gatherings like our family, this means at least 10 pounds of potatoes for 60 or so people. I not only make a large batch filled with sinful delights such as butter, cream cheese, and heavy whip cream, but I also make an extra vegan batch. Why do I go to the trouble for such a simple side? Because what I bring to the table matters.

It would be unheard of for any one of us to bring a bucket of KFC or a bag of Doritos to our potlucks. When I went to my first non-Filipino potlucks, I was so confused by the store-bought or easy-to-make casseroles on the table. At the risk of disparaging my friends who grew up on Frito casseroles, the difference that I saw in the potlucks I was used to was “who was it about?” The easy potlucks are about the individual provider. What’s the easiest thing I can bring to the table while still contributing? The Filipino potlucks were about the whole community. How can I best bless the people that will partake of what I have to offer?

Potluck Theology

Potluck theology is about bringing our best to the table and partaking of all of each other’s best offerings. There is a fullness that happens when we share our best with one another and try things that aren’t natural or familiar to us. There is discovery and delight that happens. There is a joy when we know that what we bring to the table matters. I titled this post “Decentering White Theology with Potluck” not to overthrow the white Eurocentric theology I’ve been trained in but to position it next to other theologies. Whiteness is not a problem in and of itself, except that it has reigned supreme dominance over others for centuries. This is a big “except” mind you. I posit the idea that this concept of potluck, offers a new way of inviting all to the table where we all share and partake of one another’s best dish.

This is what it looks like for me: From the Korean churches I have been part of, I have learned the depth and power of prayer. My prayer life has taken a much more guttural and free lament thanks to my exposure of Korean churches. I learned how to prostrate myself before God in a life-changing way. From the African American churches, I have been a part of, I have learned how to bring a voice from the church to the public square when calling out the injustices of our communities. I have learned that our theology can and should inform our public praxis. I also learned that Gospel music reaches to the depths of my pain and joy that CCM music just can’t touch. From my Samoan friends, I have learned that the melodies and harmonies of worship can be distinctly different and that the sounds of heaven are much more rich and dynamic than what I knew of the hymns I grew up with. I have been blessed with a rich exposure to many ways of worshipping and understanding God. Potluck theology for me has become a way of constructing a more robust and multifaceted way of seeing a very big God.

Potluck versus Buffet

Easy potlucks and buffets have a common thread, it’s about the individual. In an “easy potluck,” it’s about what is the easiest dish for the individual to bring. What can I make with the least effort? What can I dump a few cans of in a crockpot, set it and forget it? What can I buy on the way to the gathering? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done this myself at times. I too have found the easiest way to share when pressed for time, energy, and resources. But at the end, I’m still thinking about me first. In a buffet situation, I’m still the center of the meal. It’s about me picking and choosing what I want. This is an individual way of eating. It’s about the one person. The food comes out mysteriously behind the doors. There is no love in the food, it’s just mass-produced and then individually consumed.

However, in Potluck theology, no one person is center. The community is the guest of honor. Everyone is important and everyone deserves to enjoy everyone’s best. While this may seem counter-intuitive to the highly individual, capitalistic, pioneering, white American ethos, I believe that we all long for such community. When I first heard about Gastro Church, I was angry.  It felt like cultural appropriation. Eating food together as a form of church is not some white hipster invention. Ethnic churches have been doing this for years! It’s a staple for many if not all single-ethnic churches. But then I realized it wasn’t so much appropriation as it was an attempt to answer the longing for community that we all have. American individualism be damned…we humans crave relationships. And we crave it the way we crave good food.

Participating, sharing, partaking of everything, this is a communal act. This is a way of living as a family. I liken this kind of relationship directly to the perichoretic relationship of the triune God. The Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit dance with each other in a delightful act of mutual self-giving to one another. They participate, share and partake of each other’s presence fluidly, generously, and joyfully. One is not the center, they are three in one.

Body Building

Potluck theology is really about operating as the body of Christ. Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12:12 tell us of such a community through the image of the body. What’s important about the Body of Christ? It’s multifaceted, yet one being. Our American individualism messes this concept up. We operate like that hand from Addams family. I think it’s called “Thing”. “Thing” is just one part of the body but acts as a whole entity in and of itself. It has a personality and it is a family member but it is still only a hand. We are not “Things”. We are hands AND feet AND eyes AND ears AND torsos and all the other parts combined. We are a body that is meant to operate with each other’s best offering to one another.

As far as I can tell from the scriptures, we were never meant to subscribe to one dish and filter all dishes through that one flavor. Yes, I know some of you are picky eaters, but while you stay in the comfort of your PB and J, I’m going to challenge you that you may be missing out on experiences and senses that can only be brought by a diversity of spices and ingredients. If you notice from my description yes my family still eats mashed potatoes and turkey, but we compliment it with lumpia and sinigang. The joy of potluck theology is that everyone is invited to the table and we are all tasked with sharing our best, partaking from one another, and gathering in the rich relationships that are fortified by the sights, smells and sounds of food made with love.

Taste and See that the Lord is Good

How do I partake of this delectable theology? Here are some steps, but in our highly globalized society, I’m sure you can do some of this work on your own if you pray, stay creative, and open yourself to the new.

  • The invitation must be for all from the very beginning.  A balance of flavors should be sought from the start. Lemme just be frank here, I’m not trying to be an “add-on” when you realize you need some diversity, but the big decisions were already made before my invitation. My flavor and spices should be the main event, just as everyone else’s contribution.
  • Visit and become a part of an ethnic church. This is different from multi-cultural churches which have a tendency to operate white-centered no matter who’s in the room (especially if the pastor and leadership are all white).
  • Read theologians from a different country, a different race, a different denomination, and women. I could list some for you, but truly part of the joy is treasure hunting for yourself. We all have the same Google.
  • If you live as the dominant group in your community, find somewhere to meet people where you are the minority and learn how they see the world. Short-term missions will only give you a very shallow view so please find a place where deep relationships can be developed for a long period of time.
  • Read non-fiction by people of color. Read blogs, read stories…just listen to others unlike you.
  • Encourage your church and/or Christian institution to have leadership positions filled by women and men reflective of the community you are serving. Pastors, presidents, upfront positions, board members, elders, should all reflect a potluck theology that looks like the people in your area.
  • If you’re a person of color, the same works for us too. Our palates can always use some stretching as well.
  • Enjoy the journey! Taste and see that the Lord is Good. Psalm 34:8.
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