8 Terrific Table Traditions at Mennonite Churches (and the Theology that Supports Them)

Or, Why Mennonite Food No Longer All Looks Like Mennonite Community Cookbook Fare

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East Union, Iowa, work project.

1. Combining Fellowship With OutreachEast Union Mennonite Church members in Kalona, Iowa, young and old alike, prep food around work tables for “Kids Against Hunger” at a monthly food and fellowship event which also incorporates occasional mission/service projects. Dubbed CHOW (Church Happenings On Wednesday), on each first Wednesday of the month from September through April, a light dinner is served from 6 – 6:30 p.m., followed by activities, classes, or a shared service project such as here. Activities end at 7:45 to accommodate families with young children, and child care is provided for wee ones. Adult Sunday School groups take turns providing/planning adult activities and meals.

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Ross Bay’s Trifle from Chicago Community

2. Sweetening the Soul a la Trifle  – Megan M. Ramer, pastor at Chicago Community Mennonite Church tells how the trifle came to symbolize their congregation. “Asked to prepare a dessert that represented our congregation for a conference gathering, [what a great idea!] our answer was clear: a trifle it shall be. Our monthly potlucks are opportunities not only to share the sustenance our bodies need, but to sweeten our souls as well. We delight in culinary playfulness and creative expressions of food fanciness. Our trifle-making extraordinaire, Ross Bay, purchased a trifle bowl specifically for CCMC potlucks and brings different trifle variations to nearly every potluck. Visit CCMC also on Facebook

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Ángel Tamayo, associate pastor with child’s parents, Emmanuel and Emily Laubach Mwaipopo.

3. The What To Do After a Baptism Or Dedication Dilemma.  We love this photo of Kianna Mwaipopo checking out pastor Ángel Tamayo, associate pastor of Nueva Vida Norristown New Life Mennonite Church (Pennsylvania) with her parents, Emmanuel and Emily Laubach Mwaipopo, (Emily’s sister in background) and clutching her comforting pacifier. (Photo by Tim Moyer.) Most people know that in Mennonite churches, babies are “dedicated,” not baptized, a change which started the whole Anabaptist movement back in the 1500s and resulted in many persons being persecuted for not following state mandated requirements to automatically baptize every child into the church. Among Mennonites, the belief in “adult” baptism at an age when a child or person is able make their own decision and truly make a commitment to Christ and a community of believers, is a key difference between Mennonites and numerous (but not all) Christian groups.

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Fall Open House dessert table.

And what does this have to food? (Okay, it’s a stretch, but had to get the cute baby in here.) Most baby dedication ceremonies—or adult baptisms— are followed by a gathering around a table or two for a meal—either potluck with the whole church community, or simply celebrated among a smaller group of family and friends at home or restaurant. In the second picture, Pascale Cruickshank, left, cuts a sweet potato pie, while Gloria George, and Steve Brown prepare to enjoy a fall open house celebration at Nueva Vida. The beautiful yellow celebration cake is made of all Jello, and was created and decorated by a Mexican friend of the congregation. Sharon Williams, who shared the photos, says the cake demonstrates that “the Word of God is sweeter than the honeycomb!

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Table group deliberation at MCUSA Convention in Phoenix, 2013.

4. “At Table” But No Food. A common practice at many Mennonites conferences and conventions, where delegates deliberate and help make many major decisions—is the round table, allowing persons to look into the faces of those they may disagree with. At the recent Kansas City Mennonite Church USA convention, Herald Press author Donald Clymer, for one, reflected on the Christian love expressed at his Table Group: “As we progressed through the agenda of the week, it became obvious that we differed substantially on nearly all the issues. But we discussed everything civilly, learned to trust each other, and to deeply respect each other’s point of view. Could I even say we “loved” each other?” There may be plenty of water at these tables and even a mint or two, but at these tables the focus is on conversation, dialogue, and hearing each other. Thus, we celebrate the “at table” tradition where no food is served or consumed—another holy table! (Photo from a Mennonite Church USA convention, by Ken Gingerich.)

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Pancake race participants dress up in “housewife” clothing of old. See United Kingdom tradition!

5. Pancake Races – Imported Lenten Practice. Benton Mennonite Church near Goshen, Indiana has had an outstanding practice at the beginning of Lent. They hosted an annual “pancake race” on Shrove Tuesday before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday for a number of years (read all about this fun tradition imported from the United Kingdom here, and how the folks at Benton carried it out). Benton also reaches out to visitors by having a potluck lunch after every service through the school year—and regulars are welcome even if they skip church that day, according to one member! For this practice alone, we salute them and encourage visitors/newcomers in Northern Indiana to put this church on your “must check out” list.

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Beth-El Colorado Easter Breakfast

6. Potlucks Create Community. Beth–El Mennonite in Colorado Springs, Colorado, sees eating together as integral to congregational life. Church member Rhonda Wray writes: “Sharing a meal allows for more conversation. Sampling new foods, inclusion of special dietary needs, a break from the Sunday routine, and the efficiency of eating at church also contribute to potluck’s popularity. We hold a monthly ‘second Sunday’ potluck and special meals, like our Easter breakfast, featuring breakfast casseroles, cinnamon rolls, and fruits. We don’t have a specific dish or cook to send for this contest, but we affirm the excitement of a shared dishes.” (Photograph by Jerry Martin. Sent by Jeanette Martin, Administrative Assistant, Beth-El Mennonite.)

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Sushi and Deviled Eggs, side by side.

7.  Extending the Table  Grace Lao Mennonite Church began when St. Jacobs Mennonite Church in St. Jacobs, Ontario began sponsoring and welcoming refugees from South East Asia in 1979, and continuing for the next several years. Various clusters of families would gather around one refugee family to provide support (finding apartments/employment, adjusting to a new culture, friendship, etc.). Many of these refugees were of Buddhist background. Through the support and relationships formed, many of those folks became interested in Christian faith and were baptised. They began by worshipping together with St. Jacobs Mennonite Church (SJMC), but eventually formed their own congregation, Grace Lao Mennonite, in 1990. The 1990 addition to the SJMC building included a large upstairs gathering room to house the worship space for Grace Lao. Sunday School remained shared. In 1999, Grace Lao bought its own church building on Lancaster Street in Kitchener. The two congregations continue to share a close relationship.

Traditional Laotian dishes  and traditional Canadian favorites mix it up at joint potlucks.
Traditional Laotian dishes and traditional Canadian favorites mix it up at joint potlucks.

A partnership council meets regularly to provide mutual support and encouragement, and we worship and eat together at an annual Sunday School picnic, where everyone seems to enjoy the new food traditions offered and prepared so beautifully by members of Grace Lao! (Photos of Laotian dishes, courtesy of Marcia Bauman Shantz, St. Jacobs Mennonite Church.)

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Last Meatball Standing, photo by Marcia Bauman Shantz.

8. Last Meatball Standing or Last Person Through the Line. Potlucks can be tricky* and even ego wounding. Everyone wants their dish to be enjoyed, and cooks don’t mind taking home one meatball, but a crockpot full of mostly untouched meatballs? Not so much. And there are usually certain people in every church or group whom you can count on to hang out near the end of the line and refuse to go until they’re the very last person served. What’s up with that? Humility? Or pride in being “the last” who, according to Matthew 20:16, shall someday be first?

[*Coming up in a future post, we’ll share a longer essay from a Mennonite woman reminding why for those with severe food allergies, a church potluck is NOT the place they want to be.]

Marcia, the potluck coordinator and chief photographer at St. Jacobs Mennonite Church in Ontario, even wrote a sort of ode to potlucks to the tune of The Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things.”

“The Church Potluck Song”
(by Marcia Bauman Shantz, St. Jacobs Mennonite Church, ON Can. – May 2015)

(Sung to the tune of “My Favourite Things” from the movie The Sound Of Music;
with musical metered liberties assumed in the singing thereof!).

Devilled eggs and sushi, and spring rolls and salads,
Sausage and casseroles with crisp onion toppings,
Humus with pita, and crackers and cheese,
Save me a piece of ground cherry pie, please!

Pineapple rings rest in grape-flavoured Jello,
Ham slices, summer sausage, crunchy dill pickles.
Pies, brownies, trifle and Rice Krispie squares,
Are those chocolate whoopie pies I see down there?

When the grace’s sung.
When the kids run.
When we’re feeling full.
We simply remember these wonderful things,
Of what a church potluck – does bring!

Coffee cakes and paska, Easter cheese with fresh Maple syrup.
Laotian, Brazilian, Hungarian, European.
Small group planned-potlucks in each other’s homes,
Get out your calendar, who’s turn to host next?

Welcome Back Breakfast – September’s beginning.
Sunday noon potlucks and Women’s Salad Suppers.
Church camping, church picnics and church weeknight study,
Who makes that good borscht for Sunday Suppers?

When the grace’s sung.
When the kids run.
When we’re feeling full.
We simply remember these wonderful things,
Of what a church potluck – does bring!

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Thanks to all churches who submitted photos or short essays for this blog post, or allowed us to draw from your website!

Our second winner in the “Best Church Potlucks” photo contest is Ross Bay of Chicago Community Mennonite Church for his faithfulness in creating beautiful trifles! Claim you prize from these choices: Simply in Season, More-with-Less, Extending the Table, Mennonite Girls Can Cook Celebrations, or Saving the Seasons.

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What is your go-to potluck dish to prepare? Has that changed in the last 20 years? What foods–whatever the ethnicity–are favorites at your church potlucks?

This post part of Mennonite Community Cookbook‘s 65th anniversary year of blogging! Purchase cookbook here.

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