On a brisk Sunday in January, families, friends and strangers gathered for a hot meal at Kingdom Life church in east Macon.
The congregation had just endured a 21-day fast to kick off the new year, giving up sweets, caffeine and fried food for the first weeks of 2019. Sunday’s gathering marked the church’s seventh anniversary, and congregants eagerly broke the fast with a soul food feast.
After a two-hour service filled with song, dance and prayer, church members streamed out of the sanctuary and into the dining room, where they piled their plates with chicken, macaroni and cheese, green beans and cornbread.
Church members don’t chow down on homemade southern cooking every week, but special occasions at Kingdom Life call for an Agape meal — also known as a love feast — reminiscent of the first communal meal of the early Christians.
“This is just a reminder, almost like communion, where we’re breaking bread and remembering why we’re doing this,” said Justis Ward, praise and worship leader at Kingdom Life. “And that is because of each other.”
Ward, 24, first joined Kingdom Life as an undergraduate student at Mercer University, where the congregation met for services in its early years. At church, Ward said, he doesn’t have to hide how he’s feeling.
“When we come here, we’re able to confide into each other,” Ward said. “And we’re able to be our true selves, be ourselves and say, ‘You know what? I might have had a bad week, but you’re here for me, I’m here for you. We have each other’s back.’”
Sitting down together over a plate of food makes it easier for fellow church members to share what’s on their mind, Ward said.
“There’s something about when food is before you, it kind of breaks down the barriers,” he said.
Food brings people together, said minister Sharral Dean.
“We’re able to talk and kind of let your hair down a little bit, find out about each other,” Dean said. “It’s always more comforting to talk to someone over a full belly and get to know what’s going on in each other’s lives.”
Church meals nourish both the physical body and the spiritual soul, she said.
“It allows an individual to forget about what’s going on and to focus on what’s in front of them: the plate of food that someone prepared with love,” Dean said.
Church members prepare all of the side dishes for Kingdom Life’s Agape meals, and there’s always enough homemade pound cake to feed the hungry masses.
The steaming collard greens and creamy macaroni and cheese bring back memories of many church meals Kingdom Life pastor Dominique Johnson has enjoyed with family and friends over the years. He remembers sitting with his cousins and soaking in the wise words of the church elders over plates of ham and cornbread.
“It’s a place of wisdom gathering,” Johnson said. “It’s a place of peace. It’s a place of understanding. It’s a place of reciprocating listening.”
It’s also a place to bring together people with differing views, he added.
Johnson often invites pastors and congregants from other local churches to dine with him, and he hopes meals can strengthen relations between different communities across Macon.
“It’s just a place for us to say, ‘Hey, you’re a part of this community. ... whatever’s going on in your life, here’s a place you can come and be a part of community, and you matter,” Johnson said.
As Sunday’s service drew to a close and congregants uttered their final words of praise, Johnson offered thanks for the food the congregation would soon eat and encouraged everyone in the sanctuary to sit with someone new during lunch.
“It’s in the breaking of bread that we receive revelation,” he said. “It’s in the breaking of bread when we get to know each other’s stories.”
Shared meals are about more than sustenance, Johnson said.
“It’s not about the food, but it is about us. It’s about one another,” he said. “The food is just the conduit to bring us to the table.”
Editor’s Note: This story is part of The Food Story series, which examines the history and culture of food in Middle Georgia.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.