The Bible passage we heard make me hungry. They’re all about food. Psalm 145:15, “We look to you, O God, and you give us food in due season.” In 2 Kings 4 we have a very short story about people having enough to eat during a famine: they share barely loaves and freshly harvested grain. God promises to multiply what they have: “They shall eat and have some left over,” God says in the passage (2 Kings 4:43). Jesus seems take his cue from that story when, in John 6, he feeds a hungry crowd with barley loaves, broken and multiplied so that everyone had enough to eat, as they feasted together on the hillside, a kind of picnic. Sharing food, outdoor picnics—there’s something about the gospel that has to do with fellowship around meals.
This past May I spent some of my sabbatical time in a migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, just on the other side of the border from San Diego, California. I volunteered in the kitchen for most of my stay with them. So I thought I’d tell you about that experience as my sermon—one story about the gospel and food.
At La Casa del Migrante, I’m up at 5am for the morning shift—just me and the neighborhood roosters. My first task is essential to the life of the people who live there: coffee, to have it ready in time for the residents who work throughout the city to catch their buses.
I unlock the kitchen and flip on the lights. The huge cauldron rests on the gas burner. I had already mixed the instant granules into water and brewed the coffee the night before. Enough for the fifty adults in the compound, as well as the dozens of people from the streets who wait at the gate for breakfast—café y pan dulce, coffee and sweet bread.
While the cauldron warms, I set out bread and cereal for the morning, then I pull yesterday’s leftovers from the walk-in refrigerator and start scooping food into containers for workers to take with them for lunch.
Soon other volunteers make their way down to the kitchen in time for the steady stream of residents—first the people who depart early for jobs, then everyone else a couple hours later: parents with children and adults without work.
After the breakfast rush, whoever is around lingers in the open-air courtyard until staff arrive and gather the kids for educational activities while the adults begin their community chores.
Casa del Migrante is part of the Missionaries of St Charles – Scalabrini, a Roman Catholic religious order founded in 1887 to minister to migrants. Their shelter there in Tijuana was established in 1987. Currently, the priests run four shelters in Mexico: Guadalajara, Nuevo Laredo, Tijuana, and Mexico City. Globally, the Scalabrini International Migration Network administers over 250 local ministries in 33 countries, all in service of people on the move: individuals and families who’ve fled from violence, from political oppression, from wrecked economies, from the devastations of our climate crisis.
La Casa will turn thirty-five years old next year. Over quarter of a million people have sheltered there while heading north to cross the border or while picking up the pieces of their lives after deportation from the United States. Multitudes from around the globe, mostly from Central and South America, and Africa, have made food and shared meals in that kitchen and dining area.
Six long term volunteers have kept the shelter operational during the Covid-19 pandemic: volunteers from Belgium, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and one person from the US, from New Mexico. All of them in the twenties and thirties.
After the morning bustle, Miguel, the community chef, walks into the kitchen, puts on his bib apron, and begins the prep work for dinner. I put away the last of the breakfast foods, clearing space for his work station, while he darts around the kitchen. The shelter had received a donation of two turkeys the day before, and he spent the night dreaming about how to multiply them into a feast for the crowd of residents. Miguel tells me that he likes to make meals they can’t afford because everyone should get a chance to experience the delight of food. His motto is to turn donations into delicacies.
While attending to the turkey preparations, Miguel also instructs me in the art of making arroz y frijoles for a hundred. He gently scatters chunks of red onion into a massive pot of shimmering oil. I stir with a wooden spoon the size of an oar as the onions blister, then blacken. “Para darle sabor,” to flavor the rice, Miguel explains as he fishes out the onions and sets them aside for the turkeys.
He dumps a bucket of rice into the pot. The grains crackle in the oil. “The rice needs to brown but can’t stick to the bottom,” he says while showing me how to stir. I get the spoon stuck, then work it free with a bang against the metal rim as the rice clumps and clings. Miguel shows me the technique again, the rhythm of how the push and pull the rice. The work looks like a dance around the pot.
I lose track of time as I focus on the rice and trip over my feet. After ten minutes, twenty minutes—at some point Miguel sneaks over and pours a bucket of caldo, the leftover water from a chicken he had boiled yesterday. As the rice simmers he adds another bucket, this one filled with the tomatoes and onions and garlic he had asked me to liquefy in the blender earlier that morning. Then, in the form of a cross, he sprinkles into the pot a handful of salt. I watch in silence and feel like I should also cross myself and offer a blessing over the making of a holy meal.
The morning shift, which began before daybreak, ends at 2pm. In the shower I wash away the layers of cooking grease, then I rest for a while in the volunteer lounge on the fourth floor. Soon I hear the bustle of life from below and return to the courtyard. I join a long-term volunteer, Anny from Costa Rica, as she serves bowls of jicama con tajin, a pre-dinner snack.
In the kitchen new arrivals to the shelter make Salvadoran guacamole which, to the surprise of Anny and me, includes hard-boiled eggs. A woman from Sinaloa, Mexico, rolls out masa for tortillas and passes them to her son who fries them on la plancha. Later she squeezes a lime and sprinkles salt on the warm tortilla in my hand, and she tells me that they fled her home a couple weeks ago after the cartel had tried to recruit her sixteen-year-old son. She is on her way to her sister in Fresno, if they’re able to get across. “Pastor, ¿podrías orar por mí?”
Life at La Casa revolves around the kitchen—from before dawn until after bedtime. Someone is always there preparing for the next meal or cleaning up after the last. Around the stove food and stories pass from person to person.
After dinner, after everyone in the shelter has enough to eat, with the dishes cleaned and the floors mopped, Miguel passes me a beer and I ask what’s his favorite food to make. “Rice and beans, arroz y frijoles,” he answers without a second thought, “porque nunca van a faltar,” they never fail us, they never let us down. A dependable meal for the masses. This kitchen comes with a huge responsibility, he explains, because so many depend on our work for their food. “We cook to sustain the gift of life, as strength for the journey, como una bendición para los que tienen que cruzar,” a meal as a benediction, food as a prayer of blessing for those who cross.
At La Casa every meal is holy: café y pan, arroz y frijoles. The domestic arts of the kitchen are sacred rites of communion—tortillas hecho a mano with a spoonful of Salvadoran guacamole. Food and stories pass from person to person—conversations about who crossed yesterday, and wonderings about who might cross tomorrow. Every meal is a last supper.
Here, as part of our own church life, meals have been central to our lives—to share food and fellowship, communion meals and potlucks. At our best, we’re a kind of shelter, a place to share meals and stories, to bear witness to God’s grace in our lives, to the saving power of God in the world. We sustain each other with hope, with faith, with reminders of God’s care for each of us, God’s love for the world. At our meals, during our routines of fellowship, we learn how to look after each other, we take notice and organize our care.
This pandemic has taken all of that away from us. Our relationships have suffered. Our congregation has suffered. Our societies have suffered. But our hope remains the same: that God will remake us, that God will nourish us, that God’s life will become our life as we find ways to nurture each other again.
Church is how we organize our trust, our hope, around those words we heard from the Psalmist: “God upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.” (Ps 145:14-15).
All we have is manna, food for our bodies and souls, given to us in due season. To be a church is to open ourselves to receive grace, from God and each other—to share in the work of the One who upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down.
That’s who we are as the people of God. That’s what we do, one meal, one conversation, one prayer at a time.