Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mission on the mat: church youth group shares food life, and hope

By Anthony Duc Le, SVD

Eating in the Thai culture

Eating together is an important social and communal activity in every culture and society, and for Thai people, it’s no exception. When there are events that involve serving food, those in charge invariably have to think about how much and what kind of food should be served. At my church, this issue often dominates the parish council meeting conversations. For example before our annual church feast, we spent a large proportion of time on this very topic. After the event had already occurred, we talked about whether the food was enough for everyone, and what we should do for the next celebration. Likewise, in our First Saturday gatherings at parishioners’ homes for prayer and scripture sharing, despite my urging that this be a simple affair because I did not want to make it a burden on the host, the parishioners themselves refuse to make it so. No one leaves the house without first being fed. Even when the host family is rather poor, they still manage to get enough food together to serve everyone.

Eating being a part of family, community, or other group gatherings is a requisite for the Thai people who have their own unique way of sharing food. When Thai people sit down for a meal, they usually share the various dishes that are placed in the middle of the table. A pot or container of rice is placed on the side. Dishes differ from region to region. However, most meals consist of a soup, a spicy dish, a vegetable dish, and some fresh vegetables. Unlike many of their Asian counterparts, Thai people nowadays use forks and spoons rather than chopsticks, which are reserved for noodle soups such as kuaytiaw. In the countryside, people often eat with their hands, which is the style of eating practiced before utensils were introduced. For example, in the Northeast region of Thailand, people often use their hand to pick up a piece of sticky rice, dip it in a spicy dish and then put it in their mouth.

Usually the dishes placed in the middle of the table come with a serving spoon. But it is not uncommon for Thai people to serve themselves with the utensils that they use to eat. In people’s homes, especially in the countryside, Thai people often eat sitting on a mat spread out on the floor inside or in front of the house where it is a bit cooler. However, eating in such an open space also requires them to invite neighbors to join everytime one passes by. It is a polite way for the people to continue their meal without feeling like they are being unhospitable. Usually, the passerby politely refuses the invitation and goes on his way leaving the family to eat in peace. Eating for Thai people is a relationship building activity in many ways, and an important part of people’s everyday life. It is no wonder that when Thai people greet each other, they often inquire whether they have eaten or not.

The Christian Agape meal

In reality, it’s not the Thai people alone who employ the occasion of sharing a meal together to enhance or solidify good relationships through the sharing of conversation, jokes, stories, and of course, food. In almost every culture, friendships and communities are often formed and strengthened through meal rituals – both formal and informal. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus was often seen eating with many people –his disciples, community leaders, and even sinners. Sharing food with these people were an important part of Jesus’ ministry and actually afforded him many unique teaching moments. Sharing in a meal with others allowed him the opportunity to convert and transform the lives of people like Levi the tax collector and his friends who were castigated by society (Mk 2:15-17). Accepting meal invitations presented him with perfect scenarios to teach those such as the Pharisee named Simon on the relationship between love and forgiveness (Luke 7:36-50). Breaking bread with his disciples on the last night before he was arrested and hung on the cross allowed Jesus the occasion to say profound and sincere parting words to them, and taught them the way to remember him in the future (John 13-16).

So it is not surprising that in the early days of the Church, Christians would gather around the table in people’s houses to share food and fellowship, sang, and prayed to remember Jesus. This meal is what came to be known as the agape meal, or the love-feast. This act of worship and fellowship would eventually evolve into the formal Eucharist that we see today. However, as the formal Eucharistic celebrations began to take shape, in the past, agape meals often were still held as an activity separate from the Eucharistic celebration. Today, at many churches, agape meals often take on the characteristic of after-mass social, Saturday night potlucks, or even full out meals in which members sit down around the table to share food and fellowship. At one of the churches of Fr. Truc Phan, SVD in Nong Khai Province, every Sunday, the villagers bring food to share with each other after Mass. All these things act as an agape and provide opportunities for building community spirit and unity.

From instant noodles to agape meal

When I first came to St. Michael Archangel Church in Nong Bua Lamphu in April 2008, I was quite disappointed by the lack of spirit in the church. I witnessed a situation in which few Catholic families came to Sunday Mass. I had no altar servers, no assigned readers, no organ player, and no organ. Music that accompanied community singing came from a recorded CD that was used every week. Needless to say, the pre-recorded music did little to enhance the dismal atmosphere in the church.

One of the few bright signs in the church that I saw was a group of 4 teenagers, 3 girls and one boy who came to church every Sunday for catechism. All four had been Buddhist since birth. The three girls had been recently baptized by the former pastor, although their catechism training had been limited. One of the girls came from the orphanage for HIV+ children located behind the church, and the others came from the community.

The catechism classes took place in the afternoon because the teacher had to travel to Nong Bua Lamphu from Udon Thani, the province next over. However, Sunday Mass was at 8:30 a.m. After Mass, the teenagers would often hang out at the church because they did not want to go home then come back for catechism. As lunch time came around, the youth would often ask for instant noodles or whatever food I had in my refrigerator to eat. I let them use the kitchen of the rectory to prepare the food because there was nowhere else to cook the food. Other than the church building itself, the only additional parochial building was the recently built rectory. Even the girl who came from the Children’s Home did not go back but chose to eat lunch with her friends at the rectory. Eating at the church while waiting for catechism class, therefore, became a regular and necessary activity.

As I invested a significant amount of time and effort into building up youth ministry at the church, their presence at the church became common. So was the sight of youth eating together at the church, usually informally. Vietnamese youth who come to find work in Nong Bua Lamphu often came to visit me at the church, to study catechism, or to help clean the rectory. Oftentimes, they end up cooking using what we could find in the refrigerator to make it into a meal. Youth who come to participate in Saturday activities such as doing volunteer work in the village or attending activities at neighboring churches also often find themselves returning to the parish afterward to hang out and eat.

From a group of four teenagers, the youth group in the church has now grown to over 20. Some of them come from the community. Some of them have grown up from the children’s home. Some of them are young adults who are Vietnamese migrant workers who have made their way to Nong Bua Lamphu, and subsequently to the Catholic church. Some of them are HIV+ teenagers who have recently come to live at the Mother Mary Home.

As the number of children and teenagers who come to the church grow, so do the activities designed for them. After Sunday Mass, children learn catechism or musical instruments, or life skills classes, depending on the development of church activities. Presently, activities for the youth (age 13+) take place all morning and officially end after lunch – a meal in which they cook and share together as a group. Thus, from merely giving the youth instant noodles to hold them up until catechism, the Sunday meal at the church now is a formal youth group activity that is participated by many of the youth group members.

Youth group meal as an extension of the Eucharist

While the youth group at the church has grown much larger than the few members just two years ago, not all of them are Catholic. Some are still studying catechism awaiting to be baptized. Some youth who come to the church do not have an interest in studying catechism, and cannot be forced to follow Catholicism against their will. Still, they come to church and participate in Mass. The church youth do virtually everything in the liturgy – serving at the altar, doing the reading, playing the organ (we now have one), leading in the praying as well as the singing. They also do many things outside the liturgy as well. However, the Eucharist for the youth, has not been as much a symbol of unity as desired because not everyone is receiving Holy Communion or on the track to receive the sacrament. It is a situation that is regrettable from the perspective of a parish priest, but it is a situation that I accept with peace and trust in the mercy of God.

What is so far not possible in the Mass is made up for in the youth meal, which is something that everyone is invited to participate in without any obstacles. All are welcome to partake in the food before them and to enjoy the conversation taking place in the group. The youth group meal is the agape meal that becomes an extension of the Eucharist for the youth, and is the activitity that all who come do not have to feel that they are “left out”.

Youth group meal as an act of sharing and participation

Every Saturday morning, when it is still early, Nong Bua Lamphu’s morning market is full of activities. Thewarat Thailampoo, a former seminarian who is now a regular church staff, goes to the market to buy two things – flowers for the church and groceries for the Sunday youth meal. His budget used to be 200 baht for flowers, and 300 baht (about 9 USD) for food. Usually, he buys some meat, some eggs, and some vegetables. He buys things that he thinks the youth can easily use to make a meal.

On Sunday morning, at about 11 o’clock, about five of the youth are assigned to go into the kitchen to make lunch for the group. The rest engage in other activities. Some are cooking experts, but most are not. Yet, they make do with whatever they find in the refrigerator. Their job is to come up with about four dishes along with a big pot of rice enough for the number of people present. They don’t always estimate correctly how much rice or food is needed. Sometimes there’s way too much left over. Other times, the food is gone, but people are still not yet full.

Those who don’t have the responsibility of cooking do the setting up, cleaning, and washing. The group leader has a list of people assigned to the various tasks from week to week. Despite the attempt at a system, chaos is not unusual. Still, every week, the group manages to find enough people to cook, to clean, and to wash.

Youth group meal as an act of unity and acceptance

The taste of the food that appears on the mat spread on the ground in front of the church differs from week to week, from people to people. However, no words of complaint have ever been heard coming out of the youth who join the meal. Perhaps they themselves are too aware of their own cooking ability to dare criticize others. After all, eventually, it will also be their turn to do the cooking. But most likely the reason many stay for the meal is not for the food but rather for the friendship and the fun of cracking jokes at one another during the meal. So the taste is not so much an issue.

The group eats sitting down on the mat, and the eating takes place after the prayer of thanksgiving has been said. Saying grace is the duty of one of the youth who did the cooking that day. Around the food, the members share in the food that they themselves made. They make jokes, talk about the things that young people talk about, and generally enjoy being with one another. I also use the occasion to share with the group some news about the church or about upcoming group activities. I also use the occasion to give comments to the group—praising them for good things that they have done, or remind them to do better in other things. I try to keep negative things to a minimum in this task because it is important to not make people lose their appetite during meal. Just as we begin the meal with a prayer, we also conclude the meal with one. And nobody leaves the mat until the final prayer has been said.

Youth group meal as an act of service

Most youth don’t like to cook and few like to do dishes. But here, they are taught to do both. Serving each other is at the heart of the youth group meal together. Cooking for each other, helping each other to clean up, and washing the dishes become acts of service for one another, and teaches them to value a life of service and cooperation. They not only serve during the meal but also serve in their daily lives. We hope that they will learn to serve the people in their family, the abandoned elderly in their community, the friends at their school, and the poor in society. Oftentimes, the youth group do activities such as going to visit the elderly, or do something for the church. Thus, by creating opportunities for the youth to serve one another in the meal, we hope to also remind them to serve one another in everyday life.

Youth group meal as an act of hope

Everyday there are countless meals being eaten all over the world. But eating together does not always mean building relationships if the participants do not put their hearts and minds into the activity. However, in the youth meal, I believe many of them do. Seeing the youth making food together, sitting side by side, and sharing the food that they have made inspires a tremendous sense of hope in my heart. It is the hope that in this world, people from all sorts of cultures and life situations can come together and accept each other in a sincere way. It is the hope that others will look at this simple group and see God’s love reflected in their interactions with one another. It is the hope that in Christ, there is no Thai or Vietnamese, no HIV+ or HIV-, there is no rich or poor. For everyone, no matter who they are, are the children of God.


Ever since coming to serve at St. Michael Archangel Parish in Nong Bua Lamphu Province, I’ve tried to create many activities—both pastoral and social. It’s been thoroughly a trial and error experience. Some activities have seen great results with community support. Some barely get off the ground. Some go well for a while until something happens and puts it to a halt. The Sunday youth meal as well as all the times when the youth come together to share food is for me a particularly meaningful act. It is not easy to create an orderly system with the cooking and the cleaning, and sometimes the food takes a while to be ready. But I believe many of the youth try their best, and sharing food with the youth has always been something very foundational in my youth ministry. When I see them eating together, young people sitting down around the table, serving one another, talking to one another, and relating to another, while all around them, society is becoming ever more individualistic and inward looking, I feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction and thankfulness because I believe that I am creating an opportunity for people to bridge differences and create community. And it can be done with a simple meal.

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