US Catholic Faith in Real Life

To break bread together we must end the scandal of hunger

African American spirituals invoke the memory and challenges of Jesus' meals and table fellowship.

By Father Bryan Massingale | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Justice

Eating and drinking are the primary ways we both initiate and maintain social relationships, whether on a first date coffee, during a regular weekly gathering with friends, at a formal holiday meal, or at a state banquet between leaders of nations. What we eat, how we eat, when we eat, and with whom we eat offer significant clues about a society’s relationships and values. Anthropologist Lee Klosinski writes, “Eating is a behavior which symbolizes feelings and relationships, mediates social status and power, and expresses the boundaries of group identity.”

The central act of Christian worship, the Sunday Eucharist, is a ritual remembrance of Jesus’ meals during his earthly life. Our communion songs invoke the memory and challenges of his table fellowship. One such hymn is the African American spiritual, “Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees.”

Let us break bread together on our knees;
Let us break bread together on our knees;
When I fall on my knees, with my face to the rising sun;
O Lord, have mercy on me.

The deep meanings and challenges of this hymn are especially striking when one considers the real-life nutritional challenges faced by its original singers, the African enslaved community. This community sings of breaking bread, yet they were chronically malnourished and hungry. They also sing of drinking wine, yet this was a luxury beverage that most slaves seldom, if ever, experienced.

The song is their veiled judgment upon those who ate and drank what they themselves could never enjoy. It is a masked critique of those Christians who celebrate in worship what they deny to others in life. It also conveys a sense of the enslaved community’s understanding of their own innate dignity and worth. Contrary to the daily assaults they endured upon their persons and liberty, they saw themselves as worthy of the blessings of eating well and drinking freely. They envisioned a day when they will be treated with equal human dignity, a day marked by inclusion in genuine meal fellowship.

The song speaks of breaking bread, drinking wine, dining, and praising God specifically together. Despite the fact that religious gatherings were most likely racially segregated, the enslaved community was aware of righteous whites (such as those who were conductors on the Underground Railroad). Thus a reconciliation with whites, a breaking of bread and sharing of worship, was not excluded in principle. But this could not take place with those who were committed to preserving and defending injustice, specifically human enslavement and the hunger that goes with it. Praising God together requires a shared commitment to creating a society where none lack freedom and nourishment for their bodies—a society consistent with an authentic understanding of God.

If eating expresses who counts and matters in a society, then Jesus’ meal practices and our communion hymns stretch our social imaginations and the boundaries we place upon our inclusion, welcome, and embrace. Does our worship facilitate an encounter with Jesus’ subversive memory? If so, wouldn’t the Mass leave us disturbed in the face of hunger and food insecurity—scandals that scar our world and nation? How can we celebrate the Eucharist with integrity when too many children go to school hungry and so many seniors eat only one decent meal a day while public policies are being proposed that would gut school lunch programs and Meals on Wheels for the homebound? 

The enslaved sang of the day when all can dine and feast on the goods of God’s earth. These enslaved Africans, our Christian forebears, remind and challenge us that we cannot break bread together unless we work together for a world where hunger is a distant memory rather than a present haunting scandal.

This article also appears in the June 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 6, page 10).

Published: 
Thursday, June 1, 2017