REAL Change: Ayres' 'Good Food' Brings Theology to the Table
Jennifer Ayres is no stranger to the abundant analogies linking food and faith. “A meal is the orienting metaphor for the Christian tradition,” says the assistant professor of religious education and director of the Religious Education program. “Within every meal—and in the paradigmatic meal of the Eucharist—is embedded an invitation to both divine encounter and moral responsibility.”
Her latest book, Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology (Baylor University Press, 2013), explores issues of food justice and practices that are healing the system while deepening Christian faith along the way.
The idea for Good Food sprouted from a seed planted during Ayres’ work with high schoolers at Candler’s Youth Theological Initiative. She led a group in a day-long project to glean produce from an urban community garden that was started by the Atlanta Community Food Bank as a response to hunger in the neighborhood. During the outing, Ayres witnessed something in the high school set she didn’t expect: excitement.
What excited them? Perhaps this urban gardening experience was a genuine “aha” moment, the first time any of the youth identified the relationship between food supply and economic justice. Maybe they were inspired by seeing the community empowered by something as simple as a garden. Maybe they were energized by being part of the solution. “I think I have been trying to make holy sense of the kind of transformation that I witnessed as those young people worked in the Hartnett Community garden that day,” she says.
A passion for theologically sound practices in farming, environmental responsibility and sustainability is also at the forefront of the hearts, minds and mission of many Candler students, something Ayres notes is visible in the work they do in the surrounding community.
“Because of our location in the midst of a university that has an unmatched commitment to sustainable food, Candler is fertile ground—forgive the pun—for students who want to work at the intersection of hunger, environmental flourishing and economic justice,” she says.
“Many Candler students are deeply interested in urban farming, intentional communities and other ways of life that are fulfilling, environmentally sustainable and deeply faithful. We have students living and working in intentional communities in places like the Old Fourth Ward, working in the Candler garden on Emory’s campus, and in urban farms and immigrant communities around Atlanta.”
Ayres’ research for Good Food prompted her to work closely with students who are discerning calls within an ecological context. To help meet their needs, Ayres has designed a course called—fittingly—Good Food, which will examine the economic, social, environmental and political contexts, the orienting theological moment of Eucharist, and Christian practices of food justice.
Ayres hopes that just as Good Food was born from and shaped by her experiences with students, the book will shape students’ experience of the theological framework of food justice. “I am inspired by students’ work, and see it as deeply theological. My own contribution, I hope, is to help them see the ways in which the practices I talk about in the book are formative for Christian faith—how they arise out of our theological tradition and enrich and challenge how we think about central Christian practices like communion.”
Good Food’s conclusion is hopeful, dwelling on the ‘everyday visionaries’ who are slowly bringing awareness to the multilayered matters of how we nourish and are nourished:
“In their little moves against destructiveness, people of faith discover and reveal God’s presence in the everyday. They express their wonder in response to God’s provision and the earth’s beauty. But they also stand as a witness to the sin and brokenness that characterize the food system, and that make truly good food a near impossibility. Finally, they fortify the bonds of interdependence that join people together in communities; in Christ’s body, the church; and in human relationships with God’s body, the earth. In these seemingly small things, they are visionaries.”