Food and Faith – A Long, Delicious United Methodist Tradition


Church and food – it’s a relationship made in heaven. Whether it’s coffee and donuts in Sunday School or elaborate potlucks with all the fixings, it seems like there’s always something to eat or some discussion about what any given group will be eating. And it makes sense when you think about it. Holy Communion – the breaking of bread together – is an essential part of our United Methodist faith tradition. Food unites us, heals us, and sustains us. Churches today continue long-standing food traditions and innovate with new ways of bringing food and fellowship into their ministries.
The Beloved Covered Dish
The church potluck or covered dish dinner is iconic in American culture and was a highlight of community life. Where else can you make a meal of squash casserole, cheesy hashbrowns and lemon pound cake in one big smorgasbord of deliciousness?

St. Paul UMC in Atlanta at one time held a potluck one Sunday a month. Then it went to once a quarter – and then it quietly faded away. Earlier this year, church council member Jeremy Varner made it his mission to bring the potluck back. He set up a potluck for once a quarter and with help from other congregants, planned each around a theme to draw more attention – and maybe culinary inspiration. This August the theme was “Back to School” and the church just so happened to have a new pastor to welcome. The potluck was brimming with delicious food and, importantly, people to eat it.
“There was a contagious energy about gathering together to share a meal. Everyone was in on it, from our youngest members, all the way to our (not as young) members. It was a real communal effort,” Rev. Cassie Rapko, St. Paul’s pastor recalls.

The communal aspect became real in more ways than one when Rapko realized that morning that there was no bread for communion.
“In a hurried frenzy, I ran into the kitchen to see if I could find some bread and immediately was handed the very best rolls that had been brought for the potluck,” she remembers. She was worried there wouldn’t be enough bread for communion and the potluck, but everything worked out “in a loaves and fishes way,” she laughs.
Having this potluck in her first weeks at St. Paul helped her to get to know others, she said. Rapko is looking forward to the next potluck around Thanksgiving.
Fish Fries and Fellowship
Like St. Paul, Bethel UMC in Stockbridge is a small church that’s big on eating. In addition to potlucks, they host a community Fish Fry each fall and spring that raises funds to support the church’s annual mission trip to Nacaome, Honduras. This new church tradition began about five years ago and has evolved into quite an event with a local following. A team of 18 church members, both young and old, fry up the fish and prepare the plates which include fried fish, hush puppies, French fries, cole slaw and a drink. The events usually draw a crowd of 150 or more and the funds uplift a community abroad.

Bethel UMC also uses its culinary talents to minister to those in need. Through the Calvary Refuge Center in Forest Park, they serve homeless families and individuals a hot meal and breakfast and lunch fixings several times for year. It’s been such a meaningful experience that church members have added to the program each year and are currently considering 12 meals at the Center for 2019.

“The best part for us is visiting with the guests as we serve the meal, along with taking time to hold the babies and play with the kids,” Moore adds.
Church Cookbooks and Honoring Traditions
Jackson UMC has a long, rich tradition of food and faith spanning 200 years. To celebrate their bicentennial, the church recently published a professionally printed cookbook with 300 recipes compiled by the congregation. Recipes range from Southern classics like chicken pie and peach cobbler to lighter, more modern fare like Greek couscous salad. The book also contains historical photos and information about the church past and present.  Jackson UMC first produced a cookbook in the 1950s with several new editions following in the 1970s to early 2000s. The cookbook committee wanted to be sure to honor the church cooks of the past by including some of the recipes from church members who have passed on.  
“This has really been a fun project for the membership,” says church member and cookbook coordinator Julie Walker. “Everyone has enjoyed sharing their recipes and working together as a team to create this cookbook. It is always energizing to work on a project as a whole church and this is something everyone can do--we all cook and eat.  It really does help reinforce that as a church we are a community.”
Jackson UMC’s Pastor Chris Shurtz adds: “Sharing food is an important ministry of the church, and when done right can welcome all into a relationship with the church and Jesus. We find that we have a lot in common with each other when we gather together around a common meal.  A meal can help us tear down barriers a bit, and help us realize that God invites us all to find nourishment in Him and especially his Son Jesus.”
Rachel Quartarone is a freelance writer (and United Methodist) in Atlanta.