Words by Alyssa Esparaz
The sun was high overhead, offering its final hot blaze of the day before it would begin its dip into the horizon. We were walking to our interviewee’s home—our final one for the day.
I was with a group of colleauges in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, gathering stories and photos of children and families who are part of Compassion International’s programs.
As we turned the corner onto the street where our interviewee, Bethlehem, lives, we were met by a large gathering. A funeral, our local colleagues told us. A neighbour had passed away, and the community was gathered for the traditional three days of mourning. We hesitated, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. Should we continue with the interview?
But Bethlehem was still eager to welcome us into her home, so we moved forward. A group of us waited outside the small home while the others completed the interview inside.
While sitting on a stool in the yard, I got a closer look at the major cooking operation associated with this funeral. The mourners needed to be fed for the three days, and the multiple open cooking fires, giant pots and multitude of dishes was evidence of this. I was in awe of the food that seemed to continuously pour out of this kitchen—a kitchen so different from my family’s back home.
Fikir, Bethlehem’s cousin, and the funeral’s large cooking operation behind her.
Before long, we were noticed, and a neighbour walked across the yard to offer us plates of food. It was a gesture that is so common in many, if not most cultures—you always feed visitors.
We did the polite thing and accepted. I was happy to, considering how much I love Ethiopian food, though eating unfamiliar food cooked in a stranger’s kitchen is an admittedly risky travel choice.
Enjoying a bite of the neighbours’ injera and stew, a traditional Ethiopian dish.
There is nothing quite like food when it comes to simultaneously connecting us and highlighting the rich diversity of humanity.
Those plates of food communicated so much to us, despite language and difference: that we were welcome and need not feel uncomfortable, despite the sombre circumstances.
Food connects us—it’s something we all need, and something we can always share. It’s often the way we express love or hospitality. Throughout the gospels, we see how Jesus used food to connect with people, sharing meals with His disciples, friends and even people labelled “sinners” by society. Several of his miracles centred around food and drink—from feeding the 5000 to turning water into wine!
And yet, food is different everywhere we go, too. It’s a way to learn about the new places we find ourselves in—from what the local crops are to what people and stories might have interacted with the region. Food is a way that both individuals and cultures express themselves.
I’ve had the privilege of travelling to 12 countries—mostly to see the frontline work of Compassion and meet and learn from the children, families and staff involved with our work around the world. Each time I enter a new home, church or community, I am almost always offered something to eat or drink.
Whether it’s an extravagant meal at a wealthy host’s home, a coconut cut fresh off a tree in a host’s front yard, or a glass poured from a bottle of Coca Cola that cost a host half a day’s wage, it always causes me to reflect on this beautiful form of expression we’ve been given.
God created us with bodies that need to eat, and in doing that, He gave us a medium for human connection and creative expression, too. It’s not just nourishment for our bodies, but a reason to sit around the table in community, a way for someone to tell us they love us, a gesture of welcome.
It’s a way to both express our diversity and bridge our differences.
I love the way Shauna Niequist expresses this in her book, Bread and Wine:
“We don’t come to the table to fight or to defend. We don’t come to prove or to conquer, to draw lines in the sand or to stir up trouble. We come to the table because our hunger brings us there. We come with a need, with fragility, with an admission of our humanity. The table is the great equalizer, the level playing field many of us have been looking everywhere for. The table is the place where the doing stops, the trying stops, the masks are removed, and we allow ourselves to be nourished, like children.”
I’ve experienced this both at home and around the world, and I’m convinced that it’s another way God shows how much He loves us and desires for us to express that love to each other, too.