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Feast and famine at church supper

Guests experience wealth and poverty at Swampscott, Mass., ‘Hunger Banquet.’
By Jane Greer
11.24.06

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The sign greeting 50 members and friends of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lynn in Swampscott, Mass., when they arrived for a fundraising banquet at the church November 19 said, “Warning: You are about to leave your comfort zone.” And for more than half of the diners, who ended up sitting on the floor eating rice with their fingers, it was an experience that pushed the comfort envelope.

Not all of the banquet-goers ended up on the floor. Fifteen percent of the participants, chosen at random, got to sit at a table where they were served a complete meal, including salad and dessert. This group, protected by guards, was designated the upper class. At a table in another part of the room, the remaining 30 percent of the diners, representing the middle class, ate a simpler meal of beans and rice. At one point during the dinner, an increase in the price of coffee was announced and one diner in the upper class was rewarded with extra food, one was demoted from the middle class to the lower class, and one of the lower-class diners had her portion halved.

The senior youth group at the Swampscott church hosted the Hunger Banquet—a program designed by Oxfam America to help participants experience the realities of hunger and the class system. “People coming from a place of privilege have no idea what it’s like to be hungry,” said Anne Principe, youth advisor at the Swampscott church and director of religious education at First Parish in Brookline. “We have to live it out to really know.”

The Hunger Banquet was one of a series of church programs on hunger that will culminate in December with a congregation-wide party at a soup kitchen in Lynn.

After dinner a short meeting was held to give participants a chance to debrief. The banquet raised $500, which the entire group decided to donate to the Oxfam Social Justice group after considering several social justice and social action organizations.

And how did it feel to be among those on the floor? Mary Best, chair of the church’s Social Concerns Coordinating Committee and the lower-class person whose portion was halved in the coffee industry upset, said, “This is only a drama but it certainly showed me that not only is it bad at the bottom, it can get worse.”

Best said that her group felt a lot of solidarity and at one point started to sing, only to be hushed by the guards. She also noted that the rice her group was served was burnt.

Kimberly Luck, acting director of Lifespan Religious Education, said that burning the rice was an accident, but fortuitous in that it mimicked reality. “Hungry people cannot afford to be picky,” she said.

Suzanne Chapman, who was seated at the middle-class table, said that some of her tablemates felt guilty when they saw others sitting on the floor. But she also noted that she did not see any sharing of food between the class groups from where she was seated.

For youth group member Andy Jones, one of the surprises came at the end of the program. “Our congregation is very vocal,” he said. “People talk a lot. But at the end of the banquet when we asked people their impressions, they didn’t have anything to say. It was a very powerful experience.”


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