A Place at the Table: Thinking Theologically about Hunger and Poverty

Post Author: Jessica Hawkinson

cherry tomatoes, garlic, red peppers and herbs in a cast-iron pan on a wooden table next to a red and white gingham checked clothHere in rural Illinois where I live, the leaves on the trees are starting to change—red, orange, and yellow gracing our streets and college campus green spaces. Alongside the color, you’ll find bare expanses of dusty dirt fields, where thousands of farmers seem, en masse, to have harvested all of their corn and soybeans at once, leaving the majority of the state of Illinois brown and flat until cover crops come poking through to add a little color before snow comes.

I live in two worlds all year long, and one of those worlds points me always toward summer. I’m the Associate Chaplain at Monmouth College, but also the director of a grand experiment on our campus called the Lux Summer Theological Institute for Youth. The Lux Institute brings high school students to our campus for two weeks each summer to study a prominent global issue alongside theological reflection.

In Summer 2019, we’ll be focused on the theme “A Place at the Table: Thinking Theologically about Hunger and Poverty” from June 16-30. I’m already busy searching for curious students to join us for this free program, and already thinking about the nuances of each class, activity, reading assignment, community building exercise, and meal. I’m adding “remember to pick up laundry quarters from the business office” to my growing list of summer responsibilities for the Institute (because even student laundry costs are covered!).

As those preparations continue, I’m turned back to focus on the intersections between my work with high school students from around the country and the college students here on campus. The Lux Institute was started two summers ago, and its first program theme focused on food security. In the academic year that followed, I discovered that many of my college students struggle with food security of their own. I had spent two weeks with high school students exploring the ways that hunger and food insecurity impacts their local communities around the country, and I was prompted to explore my own immediate context.

I discovered that sometimes college students quietly choose between books and food. Sometimes they choose the smallest meal plan because that’s all they can afford. Students living off campus struggle to make ends meet and they go to class hungry. During the summer, when the dining hall is closed, the students who are most likely to stay on campus don’t have enough money or stability at home to return to their families.

My ministry in college chaplaincy looks a little different than I expected. Sure, I lead chapel services and hold gatherings with students centered on theological and faith-based questions. This past summer, though, my biggest project was working with faculty and staff to start a food pantry for our students. Most students with the greatest need over the summer weren’t eligible for public aid programs or local food pantries because their financial aid packages for tuition put them over the income thresholds. We had over 40 visits from twelve or more students during the three summer months.

We are working to extend the program throughout the academic year as well. I have volunteered occasionally with the student, faculty, and staff crew that manages our campus garden and farm. Our campus beekeeper has established five new colonies of bees in hives supported by two local Presbyterian churches, our local Presbytery, and the college’s Global Food Security Initiative. I consider one of those local Presbyterian churches to be my “home church,” but my church extends beyond its four walls.

My church extends to the network of high school students from congregations all over the country who are working for food justice and care of creation efforts. My church’s members are of all different faiths and no faith at all. The work of building community across all these different spheres is a remarkable ministry that has changed the way I think about the church and its mission in the world. I am a chaplain with many hats, rooted in the vows I took at ordination, seeking to live out a calling that is unique and different every day. I am eager to see what each new season brings, and grateful for the abundant ways God is working here in this place.

Jessica Hawkinson currently serves as Assistant Chaplain at Monmouth College. She previously worked at First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest. She is a graduate of Macalester College and Princeton Theological Seminary.

She loves to read, discuss interesting ideas with friends, and tackle home improvement projects with her husband.

Image by: Engin Akyurt
Used with permission
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