By Annette Hinkle
There are those who readily admit that — for them — a good meal is a religious experience. Then there’s Rev. Donna Schaper, who takes the idea of food worshipping to a whole new level.
“We’re really in the middle of a sea change and how Americans look at food,” says Rev. Schaper, senior minister at Judson Memorial Church in Washington Square in New York City. “It came to me that the religious aspect of food hadn’t been thoroughly explored. The entire heart of our spirituality is the simple meal that is more than it appears … the heart of our faith is the meal.”
On Saturday, Rev. Schaper, who served as pastor of Riverhead’s First Congregational Church from 1987 to 1993, comes to Canio’s Books to talk about her new book, “Sacred Chow: Some Holy Ways to Eat” as part of Canio’s Cultural Café. Rev. Schaper notes that she’s not the first author to make a connection between food and faith — there are dozens of titles already out there on the subject.
“But they’re much more serious,” she says. “My book is trying to be playful. You don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy the book. You can have no theology at all. I was trying to play with the notion of how people will share around a table in a way they don’t otherwise. There are people who say they want all Mexicans deported then they’ll eat at a Mexican restaurant that night. If you have political differences with someone, it’s a good idea to eat with them. Have coffee, have lunch, a simple invitation can get to the roots of a serious problem.”
Issues related to social justice have long been of concern to Rev. Schaper, and, like spirituality, tie in nicely to the concept of growing things. She explains that one of her earlier books, “Grassroots Gardening: Rituals for Sustaining Activism” was assigned by Ralph Nader to his students.
“A hobby is a way to keep you from burning out. Activists need to do something,” notes Rev. Schaper. “My new book is trying to hint at the joy and justice of the table and the prayer I give when I say ‘Grace’ with people. I pray everyone will eat as well as we will tonight. It’s what’s holy and sacred — that people want everyone to eat.”
Rev. Schaper grew up in Kingston, N.Y. and she has fond memories of childhood days spent in the Catskills with her grandfather, a rural mail carrier, whose true passion was his potato and strawberry farm.
“I’d work with him and I loved that,” says Rev. Schaper. “It was just something joyful and childish that was fun. When he died I kind of got out of it. They sold the land.”
But Schaper has returned to those roots, so to speak. In addition to the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) at her congregation in the city, Rev. Schaper also farms on property in Fishkill, N.Y. and Amherst, Mass. Because of her passion, Schaper is a self-professed member of the urban guerilla gardening movement in New York City.
I’m a dirt scavenger of major proportions and I grow lettuce in funny places, like Third Avenue and Third Street,” says Rev. Schaper. “The challenges of gardening in the country are deer in the city it’s rats. They just take your stuff. The other challenge is we’re just so crowded and overpopulated. There’s no dirt. That’s why I scavenge little plots and try to grow things you don’t have to take care of.”
With a farming degree from Gettysburg College and a masters from the University of Chicago Divinity School, Rev. Schaper is in a unique position to feed both stomach and soul of those she encounters in her ministry. She finds the two compatible, especially when it comes understanding life’s cycles.
“I have a chapter about composting, because I and many other New Yorkers carry our compost to Union Square [farmer’s market] every week,” says Rev. Schaper. “We freeze it, and all of our garbage goes Upstate where they make dirt out of it. Compost is one of the most spiritual of concepts. You might think you’re done, you’re garbage, but life goes on.
“Gardening’s a miracle. It also teaches you about failure,” she adds. “If you can tend and grow something, you’ve got something cooking. Especially if you can appreciate it. I can buy a tomato at the store … but it’s so much more fun to grow one.”
Rev. Donna Schaper speaks at Canio’s Books (290 Main Street, Sag Harbor) at 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 8.
Top: Rev. Donna Schaper under a blooming apple tree. (William C. Altham photo).