Cultural Dialogue on my Plate

This week I am back in Texas, for several meetings and to visit my family.  Being back home means a trip to Whataburger.  If you’re not from Texas, you may not know about our devotion to Whataburger, a burger restaurant which originated in Corpus Christi.  Our passion for Whataburger extends to telling each other tales of how far we drove to get to the nearest Whataburger if we happened to live out of state for a time.  Bon Appetit even has an article about our love for Whataburger!

As I sat with my parents at Whataburger, laughing and talking through our lunch (just 30 minutes after my  plane landed, didn’t take me long to get into that orange and white striped building) I began to think about how important food is to culture, and all the regional and cultural differences in the U.S. that are revealed through our passion for food.

What’s BBQ got to do with mission?

Bar-b-que is a vivid example.  Now that I’ve moved from Texas to North Carolina, all my Texas friends laugh and ask if I miss brisket.  North Carolina bbq uses pork rather than beef and their sauce is vinegar based.  Texas bbq is famous for slow smoked brisket and the use of sauce is debated in the old school establishments.  One of my favorites is the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church BBQ stand, with its tomato based smoky-spicy sauce.  Now if you’re from the Kansas City area, you will have a completely different style of bbq and sauce.  Each region defends their style of bbq as THE one.

Pizza is another example.  Consider the way New Yorkers defend their love of a thin crust eaten-by-the-slice pizza, and the way Chicagoans prefer a use-your-knife-and-fork deep dish pizza.  Other examples include my friends from Louisiana who are particular about how gumbo and jambalaya are made, and who celebrate Mardi Gras season with King Cake.  Or my California friends who prefer In-and-Out burgers over Whataburgers.  Or my friends along the Texas border who make tamales at Christmas time.

We each have our food that brings back memories of family and friends, celebrations, holidays and time spent with treasured loved ones.  We remember how mom used to make her special dinner, how a favorite aunt or grandmother made a dish that everyone loved at family gatherings.  These are part of our culture.  The foods we love, the foods we say “it’s not ________ without”, the foods that mean we’re home – those are cultural markers.

Cross-Cultural Learning

It’s easy to see these cultural markers when we go on a short-term mission trip outside of the U.S.  I’ll never forget having guava juice with breakfast instead of orange juice, or the roast chicken that was served with its head still on.  These were new and interesting.  It is harder when I go on trips inside the U.S. because I tend to think “that’s not how we do it at home” instead of asking questions and being open to learning about a different culture in my own country.

Cultural differences within the U.S. are important points of inter-cultural dialogue.  As Dr. Hunt’s article discussed, the future of the United Methodist Church requires that we recognize the need for inter-cultural dialogue as essential to our mission.  Talking with each other, listening deeply to one another, honoring the history and contexts of each other are essential to understanding how we are connected as disciples, connected in and though the Body of Christ.

People may laugh and ask me how I “manage” to live in North Carolina without Whataburger and the bbq that I know best, and I often laugh with them, but in practice, I am learning.  I listen to the stories about family meals, listen to how someone’s grandfather did bbq for family gatherings, listen to what is important to these people in this place.

Dr. Hunt makes the point that the mission of the UMC, and by extension, the mission work of volunteers, can’t be reduced to making the gospel relevant to the latest group (Boomers, Gen Xers, Millenials) but that we have to discover our own cultural contexts and be in dialogue with others about “what it means in specific times, places, and social locations to proclaim and enact that Jesus is the Christ.”  When we go on short-term mission trips, we must prepare by becoming aware of our own culture, the many contexts that contribute to our culture, be open to learning about our hosts’ culture, and then working side-by-side to live out the call of Christ to love our neighbors in word and deed.

Read more from Dr. Hunt’s article here:

Texas Style BBQ Sauce debate:

New Zion Missionary Baptist Church BBQ

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