This article was originally published in the World Orphans Fall Insight Magazine 2018.
I have a lot of memories filled with mouth-watering foods and beverages. Pumpkin takes me back to a dining room table where my family gathered for Thanksgiving, finishing off the experience by eating pumpkin pie. Sweet tea always makes me think of my grandfather and the huge glasses of sweet tea that he had in his refrigerator—tea so sweet that my teeth would ache from the sweetness. Those memories now make my heart ache, longing to still have him here with me.
However, I’ve realized that travel—especially international travel—changes the way I see the world around me, including the food I eat and the beverages I drink.
While in Haiti, a bowl of soup was placed in front of me: beef bones, beef shank, carrots, potatoes, onions, and- what is this orange thing that tastes so good? It’s pumpkin? Surprised, I considered the stark contrast between the sugary dessert I associated with pumpkin and the savory dish in front of me.
Little did I know that soup joumou, ‘pumpkin soup,’ could have such a fascinating story to tell.
Throughout the week leading up to this particular meal, we had ordered lunch with each church’s worship team. Seven dollars per person was exchanged for a styrofoam to-go box filled with rice, beans, chicken, plantains, and pikliz, ‘a condiment in Haitian cuisine of pickled cabbage, carrots, and peppers.’ We had eaten this traditional Haitian food each day for lunch, and no one had complaints. It was delicious!
After a week packed full of worship and delicious food, we were wrapping up our second to last day. Our team had been visiting one of our lively church partners in Haiti, and this day had been overflowing with fun and joy. As we were preparing to leave, the pastor said, “You must come back tomorrow! I’m hosting a group of pastors from all over the city. This time, we will feed you.” One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned while traveling on mission trips—or as I like to call them: “trips to visit friends”—that you give the most dignity to those you visit when you are able to accept their hospitality. These friends of mine were not searching for a handout; rather, they were craving relationship and eager to offer hospitality.
The following day, we gathered in a small concrete room, side by side with our Haitian brothers and sisters, devouring this savory soup joumou. Even the pickiest eaters in our group ate every bite and went back for seconds. I was walking back to my seat after filling my bowl for the second time, when I was stopped by one of the Haitian women who had prepared the meal. She thanked me for eating the soup they had prepared. Through hospitality, her delight was overflowing, and our bellies were full.
Later that day, as our team turned on to the bumpy road to our guesthouse, I began talking with one of my Haitian friends—someone who hadn’t attended the meal with us—about our day. As I told him about the soup the church had prepared for us, a look of amazement lit up his face. He began to share with me about years prior when people of color were not free in Haiti. In their enslavement, they were restricted from eating pumpkin. On the day of independence, people of color immediately went to the markets to purchase pumpkins. Since gaining their freedom in 1804, this soup has been made as a historical tribute to Haitian independence. It is rarely made on any other day of the year. It was a humbling moment to realize the significance of this soup that had been shared with us.
When it comes to tea, the people that I met in Iraq during one of my “trips to visit friends” transformed my perspective. I’ve had the privilege of traveling twice to the beautiful land of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq—experiences that remain some of the most breathtaking and transformative times of my life. Aasrya is a form of hot tea served in Iraq. Translated, it means, ‘mini afternoon,’ as the experience of enjoying tea with family or friends frequently becomes an event, a time marked by its own existence rather than limited by the hands on the clock.
The memory of my first visit to a refugee family’s home in Iraq is forever etched in my mind, as there, I was served rather than serving. A young lady entered the room where the women gathered. She carried an iron tray that had small, clear glasses of hot tea on small, clear saucers, with a tiny spoon for each cup. The spoon—I soon learned—is necessary, since all of the sugary goodness is sitting on the bottom and must be stirred to make the tea sweet. I am no stranger to sweet tea. I am, after all, from the great state of Texas, and we know how to do sweet tea. But I’d never had tea served to me like this. The whole experience—the warmth, the tiny glass dishes, the company—was quite comforting. The taste of the tea made me feel like I was home, the sugar and caffeine made my brain feel stimulated, and those who served us carried with them an authentic joy.
One of the last times I gathered with others for aasrya was perhaps the most memorable experience I have had while consuming tea. This was during my second visit to Kurdistan. We gathered in the home of the community leader of the Shabak Kurds, those who had taken refuge in one of our micro-camps after fleeing Mosul just two hours ahead of ISIS. As we sat sipping our tea, tears streamed down his face while he told Billy how much he loved him. The Shabak Kurds were preparing to return to Mosul, and he wept with love for his friend and brother, Billy, who had walked beside him during some of the hardest years of their lives.
Now, when pumpkin comes to mind, I still recall those sweet memories of eating pie at Thanksgiving, but I also think about sharing soup joumou—a meal with a vast and revolutionary meaning—with my Haitian family. When I consider sweet tea, I still picture glasses lined up in my grandfather’s refrigerator, but I am also reminded of the tears of my friend in Iraq and the love that was built around their hot tea hospitality. As I consider these memories now, I wonder if this is why Jesus asks us to remember him when we partake of the bread and the cup. Food shared with those that we love has the ability to take us back to those places where we have experienced fellowship and found nourishment for our bodies together around a table. In Christ, we have the fellowship of his suffering, and this we remember as we partake in his body and his blood, finding nourishment for our souls together at his table. This is the fellowship of the King. Until that day when we all dine together at his table, may our fellowship with each other be something in which he can delight.