Frequently, students in religion classes that I teach express bewilderment that Theravada Buddhist monks in countries including Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar, beg for their food. They find the practice shameful. They contrast these monks, going forth each day in lines with their begging bowls, to Catholic monks.
The Catholic monks often find endeavors to make their monastic community self-sufficient. The Cistercians I visited in Co. Waterford, Ireland, for example, had a large garden that the monks worked and a small herd of cattle. That, students find admirable. Different cultures, different realities. In Western cultures, self-sufficiency and independence, material success, are prized. In Asian cultures and Theravada Buddhist tradition, in contrast, supplication has merits for both the monks who beg and the people who give alms. Asking for food helps monks every day to subdue the ego. Giving food helps the givers to accumulate merit through the acts of compassion, sacrifice, and generosity. The act itself builds a bridge between the between the spiritual and general community.
Fortunately, groups in Bennington have bridged that gulf between Eastern and Western thinking. They provide nourishment for those who could otherwise go hungry, not because they pity people but because they value them and honor their inherent worth. Two, Second Congregational Church and GBICS, have successfully made alleviating hunger their focus for years. The Sunday Suppers at Second Congregational Church date back as much as ten years, according to Mary Lee-Clark, SCC’s former pastor. Back then, Lee-Clark wrote, “it was the only day of the week that Harvest Christian Ministries wasn’t serving any food.” Seeing the gap and the opportunity, SCC stepped in. Now, according to Marsh Hudson-Knapp, various faith communities come together there to make food “for about 80 people every Sunday Night…. All of our guests wait outside wearing masks, talking but keeping their distance.”
No one should think “Well, it’s just about a handout.” It’s not. As in the Asian communities I mentioned above, it’s a bridge-building opportunity. Hudson-Knapp wrote, “One of the important aspects of the suppers has been the opportunity for people to experience community and be heard, cared for. At first losing the opportunity to sit down and share the meal together was discouraging. But over time we have found joy in talking together while we are delivering the meals. Sometimes there are laughs, sometimes tears, but every person knows that we care and we hear them.” As a result, people bond over shared humanity.
Covid makes this all more difficult. Homelessness makes it more urgent as winter approaches. Hudson-Knapp points out that, “…the Covid virus makes it unsafe for people to come inside. So we do our best to serve a tasty, warm, healthy meal outside along with a few minutes of conversation with every person.” Families of three to eight people come, he explained, and the suppers encourage others in the community to offer their own time and caring to “take meals to their neighbors or to people they know who are hungry.”
Despite what so many in Western culture think, hunger and food insecurity is so often not a choice – or, to put that another way, it can be a choice none of us would want to make. It can happen to anyone. Illness may mean having to choose between groceries of medicine. Loss of a job may mean having to choose between eating a healthy meal or keeping a roof over one’s head. And if one doesn’t have a roof, storing and preparing food becomes all the more difficult. To offer caring to those who benefit from it acknowledges that our circumstances too can change, that none of us should fall surrounded by hands that could keep us from falling.
Second Congregational doesn’t offer its welcome alone. The suppers also provide a bridge- building opportunity for other faith groups in our community. Hudson-Knapp explains that “St. Francis/Sacred Heart makes supper the first Sunday of every month. Second Congregational serves the 4 th and 5 th Sundays, and provides staff to help with packing and delivery every week. Other faith and community groups serve in a regular schedule: Old First Church, The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and the Lutheran Church. Two new groups have joined our rotation this fall: St. Peter’s Episcopal and Temple Beth El. Harolf Lessman heads up a couple of meals, with Girl Scouts helping when safety allows them.” The more bridges built, the more who can cross over in both directions.
Another important provider in town is GBICS. In fact, the annual Empty Bowls fundraiser for GBICS, according to the organization’s website, relates directly to the Theravadan tradition and notes that “the empty bowl represents human interdependence, the truth that we only survive by giving and receiving.” Each year, community volunteers create hundreds of ceramic bowls used to serve soup and bread to the Bennington community in a massive event that has the goals of raising funds for the GBICS Kitchen Cupboard program, increasing the community’s awareness of hunger, and building bridges. GBICS models giving and receiving through the Kitchen Cupboard, which helps support about 1,000 local families each year through food distribution and recipes. Before Covid, the program also offered samples and cooking demonstrations and helped families learn how to make nutritious food choices on a budget. In yet more bridge building, local farms partner with the Cupboard, and the GBICS website particularly highlights Mighty Food Farm in Shaftsbury, which brings organic produce throughout the growing season.
As with The SCC Sunday Suppers, Covid put a damper on this year’s Empty Bowls event, which had to be moved online. Technically, the fundraiser ended on November 15, but community members can still donate through GoFundMe and through direct donations to GBICS at GBICS Empty Bowls, PO Box 702, Bennington, VT 05201.
What I admire about these endeavors is that the organizations understand that this outreach and service doesn’t make us “good.” It’s just people doing what they should do. Community is people interlinked, not individuals standing and falling alone.