The apple juice didn’t taste quite right. Neither did the cookies, which were the store-brand imitation of the better-tasting, more expensive version. And there was always fear that there wouldn’t be enough. There would be pushing and grabbing, big kids taking six cookies, and occasionally tears. Always small for my age, and the pastor’s daughter to boot, I didn’t have it in me to jostle and struggle against the other children for the snacks at coffee hour, at Vacation Bible School, at Sunday school. It wasn’t worth it.
“Why does the apple juice at church taste weird? Why do we have ‘creme-filled sandwich cookies’ instead of Oreos?” I asked my mom.
Maybe the budget didn’t allow for better. This was a generation ago, and “organic” was not a commonly used term. And anyway, we were just kids. Did it matter, really? The grownups got weak and bitter coffee with powdered non-dairy creamer in thick white Styrofoam cups, and those little powdery donuts that came in white and blue boxes from the grocery store shelves and mysteriously stayed fresh for weeks. Church ladies bought several boxes on sale and stored them in the church freezer, laying them out on trays to thaw before the service began.
Every Sunday, after church, we filled a giant black plastic garbage bag with trash. My dad sent me to scout out the half-empty cups and crumpled napkins strewn around the drop-ceilinged, orange-tiled room with a musty odor that we called the “fellowship hall,” and I swept up crumbs while my mom wiped down the counters. We turned out the lights, locked the door, and walked next door to the parsonage, where we lived.
I grew up, left the parsonage, and then began traveling, eating, and attending church around the world. I’ve lived 5 of the past 10 years overseas. With my husband and two sons, I spent three years in Scotland and one in Germany. We lived in New York State for a couple of years, and then relocated to Malawi for almost two years. All told, that’s a fair number of Sundays—and a fair number of meals.
In Scotland and Germany, men and women from our congregation served tea or coffee in non-disposable cups and offered to put a single cookie on the saucer—if you wanted it. If the church was celebrating something, they might serve a small slice of cake. The coffee hour did not feel extravagant, but it didn’t feel miserly.
Post-church refreshments in Malawi consisted of a drink of water from a hand-pump outside the little painted-brick Anglican church where we worshiped. But not for our family: we carried our own filtered water with us. It was awkward, and marked us as different from the rest of the congregants. But parasites—and diseases like cholera and typhoid—were not uncommon. The only food was the Eucharist, and, even as I knelt to receive it, I cringed inwardly when the priest fed me the bread and gave me a sip from the common cup. No one wants to think about microbes when you’re supposed to be thinking about the body and blood of Christ, but I couldn’t help it.
When we came back to the States, culture shock hit in the form of church snacks. I suddenly had to contend with platters of cookies and plates of coffee cakes and bagels. Volunteers laid out individual packages of chips and cheese-flavored snacks and handed out lollipops or miniature chocolates. My children whined and begged when we declined on their behalf. It proved to be much easier to duck out after the closing hymn rather than battle our boys over fellowship hour snacks.