Bridging Political, Racial and Religious Differences Through Food - Adrian Miller (Podcast Episode 14)
Soul food scholar Adrian Miller discusses reconciliation and bridging our political, racial and religious differences through food. Adrian is a lawyer turned political advisor, turned soul food scholar and author. He writes about food history and the intersection of faith and food. His books include The President’s Kitchen Cabinet and Soul Food.
Photo credit: Bernard Grant
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. (NRSV)
Micah 6:6, 8
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?... He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (NRSV)
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. (NRSV)
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (NRSV)
Revelation 21:24, 26
The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it…People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. (NRSV)
Additional Resources Referenced
Adrian E. Miller, Soul Food Scholar – website: https://adrianemiller.com/
Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.
Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace. I’m Mark Roberts
LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.
In your workplace, there may be deep divides that separate you from the people you work with. How can we bridge those gaps and make a connection with someone at work? Maybe someone who thinks differently from you. To talk about bringing people together at the same table, we have a very special guest today, Adrian Miller is a lawyer turned political advisor, turned food author and he's the author of several books about the significance of food and bringing people together. His latest book, "The President's Kitchen Cabinet" was inspired in part by his experience working in the White House. Thank you, Adrian Miller for being with us.
Adrian Miller: Thank you for having me.
LA: So we have kind of a funny podcast set up today. It's not our usually setup. Usually, I'm recording in my office, in Boston Massachusetts and I have a host who is on the West Coast, and we're each in our own little recording bubbles, very separate but pulled together by technology. But today, we're actually in the same room, recording you and I, we're brought together at Upper House in Madison, Wisconsin, here speaking about your work. Would you just talk a little bit about what your work is these days, bringing people together?
AM: Yeah, 'cause I've been thinking a lot about how our society is so divided and I was looking for creative ways to bring us together. I keep saying "We need reconciliation entrepreneurs." People that are very creative, that kinda get away from the old ways of bringing people together and try to figure out new spaces. And I just think food is a compelling way to do that because we all have to eat. Most of us enjoy eating and cooking is an act of love. I tell people that when somebody prepares food for you, they're saying they care about your survival. In a way they're saying, they love you. Even if the food is really nasty, they at least... The act of doing that, is an act of love.
LA: And then you don't tell them.
LA: It's an act of love to eat it even if it's nasty.
AM: Right. And I think, if you think about when you eat with someone, you have to recognize their humanity 'cause you're at a common table, you're looking at each other, you're talking, not with your mouth full, but you're talking and I think it's just easier to make connections and to break down those walls that may keep you from interacting.
LA: You were in the Clinton White House working for the Initiative for One America. How is that…Is it challenging bringing people together across political lines?
AM: Yeah, so I was doing this work in the '90s, and that was a very challenging time. There was a lot of division then as well. But in a way I think elected officials have more freedom and latitude to do this work, because it's kind of unexpected.
I think people kind of expect people of faith to kinda do this work because it's part of their faith mission and things like that, but when a politician does it, it just seems unexpected. A lot of politicians talk about bringing things together, but how many times do they actually put a lot of energy into some kind of long-term or sustained initiative to bring us together?
Yeah, you don't see that very often. So it's surprising and I think because a politician is representing several different interests and trying to mediate those interests, I think it gives them a lot of freedom to bring people together. And plus people wanna hang out with the popular politician, too, so they like... They'll be willing to come into that space because they see a long-term benefit to that.
LA: So let's talk about Christians who are in the workplace, who are maybe not in a faith-based setting, in the secular setting. How can Christians in the workplace take the work that you've been doing on convening people across different lines? What would be some ideas of, speaking across those gaps in the workplace?
AM: Yeah, so I think part of the challenge is just talking in a different language. So when you're interacting with people in that secular space... I'll give you one example. I worked at a think tank, and so, I'm driven by Matthew 25, helping the least of these, and so, but in the public policy arena, we talk about helping those in societies margins, those who are left behind. So it's just a different language, but it's the same perspective and you're trying to bend policy to match with your faith beliefs in a way that secular people will be, "Oh I'm down for that 'cause I wanna help people at the margins."
AM: So I think part of it is learning the language and then using the force of your personality and trying to be persuasive to bring people along. And that's not always easy, but I think we have a divine mission in this stuff, so I think with all things, God will make it possible. So there are some challenges but I've had a lot of fulfilling work doing that. One example is when I worked for Colorado's governor, I was the head of something called the Campaign to End Childhood Hunger and so during my time there, we came very close to serving a million meals to hungry kids, and so that was an instance where I was able to match up kind of my faith with the works in the public sphere.
LA: With the food angle.
LA: It's obviously something that's very compelling to you.
AM: Yeah, so it all kinda came together. Yeah.
LA: So I love this piece of advice about de-Christianizing our language or taking the edge off our language, is a way that we can talk to people across barriers.
AM: Right. Right, 'cause you'll find that a lot of people in the secular spaces actually agree with the end goals. So it's just a way that describing the common mission, the common purpose I guess, we would say, and then creating a compelling vision for getting to that place where a lot of people wanna get to. It's just so many people, are turned off by faith talk and religion that you might lose some people unnecessarily even though they really agree with you where you're trying to go.
LA: So where did... Have you always had the focus on food? Where did food come into your career trajectory?
AM: Yeah, so the short answer is unemployment. So I was working for President...
LA: Which is a good convincer, of all of us.
AM: Yeah, well I'd always liked to cook, and I started cooking as a child because my mother worked the night shift, and so I had a twin sister and a brother, and so we would have to cook breakfast for each other, so I was making gourmet delights like scrambled eggs with egg shells, Maypo, Malt-O-Meal.
LA: It was an act of love.
LA: And they had to act as if they loved it.
AM: Right, now they didn't really seem like they felt like I was loving them by what I served them, but you know. I was good at pancakes and french toast. So I'd always had this interest in cooking. Was working in the Clinton administration, and I was at the very end of his second term, so at that point in my life, I wanted to be the senator from Colorado. That was my professional goal so I was trying to get back to Colorado to start my political career, but the job market was really slow and sadly, I was watching a lot of daytime television.
I'm not even gonna tell you what shows. So in the depth of my depravity I just said, you know, I should read something. So I went to a bookstore. I'm looking in the cookbook section. And I see this book on the history of Southern food, by a guy named John Edgerton. And in that book he wrote that “the tribute to African-American achievement in cookery has yet to be written.” The book was 10 years old, I thought that was really interesting. So I emailed him out of the blue and I said, "Hey has somebody written this book?" and he said, "You know what, nobody's really done it." So with no qualifications at all, except for eating a lot of soul food, and cooking it some, God spoke to me and said, "Yeah, you could do that." So that's really what started the journey.
LA: And have you felt like your work has achieved what you set out to achieve, that it's really a tribute, to African-American contribution?
AM: I absolutely believe that my work has been a tribute to African-American cooks but I think it's also taken on some other dimensions. One, it's really kinda demystified the bad myths about soul food, the idea that it's just the “Master's leftovers”, it's the food that white people don't wanna eat, that it's not worthy of celebration, that it needs a warning label, it's gonna kill you if you eat it on a regular basis. Through my work, I've been able to say, "Well it's a little more complicated than that. Soul food is a very complex cuisine that marries ingredients and culinary techniques from West Africa, Western Europe and the Americas. And so as I see people's faces change while I'm giving the presentation saying, "Oh wow." Even black people 'cause you know black people are like, "I know everything about soul food. There's nothing you can tell me." And they're like, "Wow, I didn't know that", by the end of the presentation. So I think the work has been very beneficial. And then also just telling the stories of these African-American cooks who have been foundational to American cuisine. Yeah.
LA: There's this really interesting passage at the end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, where it talks about what the culmination of God's vision of the city is gonna look like, of the new Jerusalem, it's in Revelation 21:26. It's all the nations are gonna bring their gifts to the throne. All people are gonna worship together. And it's not, it doesn't say everyone is gonna come into the city and prepare the exact same food. It's everyone's coming from all the different nations to bring what is unique to that nation together in the city to worship God. This is running through my mind as I'm talking to you, as a vision of something that we could achieve one day.
AM: I just think you've described the ultimate church potluck. That's what I thought you just described, so I'll have to take a look at that scripture again.
LA: Yeah so tell me more, tell me more about your ideal vision of a church potluck. A church potluck is like a microcosm of this vision of Revelation. So how would you like to see people convene?
AM: Yeah, so the first part is people bringing something that is meaningful to them, something that tells a story about who they are, where they've come from, that they're willing to share. I would love to have that aspect of it. So, really good food. Food that a lot of people can eat. So the potluck that we did, there was gluten-free options, there was vegan soul food. And I like seeing the church mothers, bringing their dishes, showing off. A little competition going on but a nice spread. But then to me the beautiful part is when you're sitting down at the table and you're just... You see fellowship, you see people that normally would not intersect in the regular daily course of their lives sitting down there talking, laughing, sharing. To me, that's the ultimate. And then when we had that potluck we had a worship service, so we had just a very small thing, but just to see people singing together from all these different traditions, it's just beautiful.
LA: Do you see a way for folks outside of church communities, people in the workplace, to use food as a convening tool?
AM: I definitely see that. In fact, we're already seeing that right now. There's a lot of activism in terms of food, and the broad rubric is called Food Justice. So you have a lot of people in our society looking at how do we get people who are poor, chronically poor, on the margins, how can we get them access to healthy food. Because a common term that's put out there is food deserts but it... I like the term food swamps, it's not like there's no food there, it's just there's a lot of bad food.
And so you've got places like in Denver, we have, they're called food rescues, so what they will do is they will work with the shelter, but then you have a team of either volunteers or workers who bike food to people who are sick and shut in or whatever, so they're working to get food to places. You have a lot more farmers' markets, popping up. You have a lot more clergy now thinking about food as a ministry, they're looking out on the congregation, and looking at the health ailments and they're figuring out, "Well, how can food change this equation?" Believe it or not. There is a pastor in Northern Mississippi, African-American pastor who banned fried chicken at church functions.
AM: Yeah, this pastor still has a job, this pastor is still alive.
LA: I'd imagine there was a little bit of pushback.
AM: There was a little bit of pushback, but you know what? He had a vision and... Yeah so you're starting to see a lot of activity within the church. And I see that spilling over in the workplace as well, food drives. But there's a lot of energy around, okay, how do we change our current food system? Which people of faith and people in secular areas, are saying, it's not really working for everyone. And so to more directly answer your question, when I was in government, I find most energy in food policy. You're finding a lot of people now paying attention to, "Well, what has led us to this place?" And a lot of times it's just policies have created poor incentives or have led to certain developments. Not all of this was intended. I don't think people thought it would play out this way 30, 40 years ago but now we see the consequences of our current food system. And so people...
LA: Can you give us an example of poor food policies.
AM: So for example, we have created policies that have led to more agribusiness and has led to basically the disappearance of a lot of small farms and so for the sake of efficiency, and also just to meet the growing demands for meat consumption and other things, this has led us to these large agribusinesses that have now animals in a confined space. Eating, the push for antibiotics. Those kind of things have happened and it makes sense that people were trying to meet the need for the growing demand for meat, but as a consequence of that now, we are seeing that it has implications, we're seeing more diseases, we are seeing now that the antibiotics in animals are actually creating a lower resistance in humans.
We're starting to see the antibiotics and growth hormones added to animals now affecting people eating that meat. And so now that we see those things, people are trying to, "Okay, well, how can we get back to a more natural way, I guess, of doing things?" So that's why you see the growth of free range animals. You're starting to see the marketplace have antibiotic-free, growth hormone free. 'Cause consumers are now wanting that. So that's just one example.
And another example is when we think of farmers' markets now a number of farmers' markets will accept food stamps or benefits designed for the poor, so they can actually get fresh food instead of being relegated to very few choices. So those kind of things are happening, driven by people of faith and people in the secular arenas as well. So I think it's exciting stuff that's happening right now. 'Cause we've got some serious challenges, we still have population growth, we're dealing with a lot of environmental issues, so we have to figure out how to work all of these things out, and it's gonna take some work, it's gonna take creativity but I think we can get there.
LA: So tell us about... Tell us about your favorite dish or something that you would like to... If you're gonna bring together people, to your table and you wanna have them have hard conversations...
LA: About deep issues what are you gonna serve to them?
AM: Alright, so my favorite dish is greens... So in soul food, the favorite greens are collard, kale, mustard, turnip and cabbage. So I tell people, if you've been introduced to kale in the last five to 10 years, welcome to the party. African-Americans have been eating it for about 300, and I love black eyed peas and I love cornbread. Those three things I could eat multiple times a week. And the thing I like about those dishes is that you can make vegetarian versions as well as the traditional flavor with ham hock or smoked turkey, that you're seeing that a lot more. So that's something that all kinds of people could come to eat those things. 'Cause my ultimate favorite food is barbecue, but that leaves out a lot of people, especially once you start getting to specific regions of barbecue styles. Everybody has...
LA: So there's competitiveness between...
AM: Oh yeah, yeah. Absolutely. I often talk about barbecue as having denominations based on region and they definitely have followers.
LA: Does that make you a bishop? Are you a bishop of barbecue?
AM: You know what I got to trademark that. That sounds... I like that.
LA: Adrian Miller the bishop of barbecue...
LA: So you were... I interrupted you though 'cause I was so interested in the barbecue, but you were telling about what an ideal meal that you would serve to people if you wanna get 'em to bridge divides and talk about difficult issues, so how would you do that over a meal?
AM: So what I would do is first of all, have the meal and then I would just talk to people. I was like, "Hey this is what's in this dish." And so I would just ask people around the table, "Hey, does any of this look familiar to you?"
And you might say, "Hey, yeah, you know we eat kale in my culture, but we do it in a different way." Or, "We have... We don't have black-eyed peas but we have lentils." 'Cause there are of cultures that eat lentils on an auspicious day. So I don't know if you're familiar with the Southern tradition of having black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for good luck. Oh yeah, yeah. So on New Year's Day a lot of Southerners or people with Southern heritage, they will have black-eyed peas for either good luck, or money, that's the symbolism. And then greens for folding money. So the idea is that if you eat this stuff on the first day of the year you'll be prosperous the rest of the year.
I've been doing this for 30 years and it hasn't really worked out that way for me every year. But you know, so.
LA: But you get to enjoy them on New Year's Day.
AM: Oh yeah, absolutely.
LA: Which is prosperity in its own right.
AM: Absolutely. So just try to find the commonalities and often what I find is that even when you just ask that question, even if people don't have something in common they start talking about their food traditions and then that usually riffs, and then you just have a robust conversation. Then the other thing I do in case the conversation starts to stall I ask who likes to cook and whoever likes to cook my go-to question is, "Okay what's your show off dish? I'm coming over. What are you gonna make?" And that leads to a lot of robust discussion.
And so then once you have that kinda commonality the conversation can go in so many different directions. It could be about home, it could be about celebration in a community, it could be just like how do people relate with their own families. It's just like so many departure points for the conversation. And then after you've built that kind of camaraderie, that rapport then you can kinda decide, "Okay is that enough for this gathering? Do we leave it alone or do we start transitioning to the more difficult stuff?" My experience is that first gathering should just be relational and then you get to the... 'Cause you want people to come back and then you get to the other stuff.
LA: How do you do it, how do you bring up difficult conversations?
AM: So I'm just kinda... I'm one of these dudes that's just pretty much upfront. And I'm gonna say, "Look we have a challenge in our community." It could be an event that precipitated it, but what I do is identify whatever the problem is and then I just make an appeal and I just say, "I think we're all people of goodwill and I think that we can get through this." And I also say if it's a faith audience, if it's Christians, I just say, "We're called to this. We're called to be the light in the times of darkness, and there are very few spaces left in our society, where people can come together of various backgrounds. When you think about it now, there's very few spaces left," and I said, "People of faith should be demonstrating how to live together, how to hold the tension, how to disagree but still love. We should be demonstrating. That's in our wheelhouse."
And unfortunately I think a lot of times we're doing the opposite, we're demonstrating the opposite. So I think there's a tremendous opportunity for people of faith to lead in these times. And one of the things that I really think we can demonstrate is forgiveness. You've heard the term cancel culture?
LA: I haven't heard the term cancel culture explain it to me.
AM: Okay, it's possible. You must not spend your life on Twitter.
AM: So cancel culture. Cancel culture is this idea that if you make a mistake, you know that's it for you. There's no... You just gotta go away, you're gone, you're banished forever. Which I understand why people feel so strongly about this, especially if something is egregious but we're all human beings, we all make mistakes and a society I believe can only effectively operate if there's a path for redemption. There has to be a way for people to come back and be part of the community. And so I think Christians when... Especially when we feel like we've been betrayed or offended or whatever, if we can demonstrate forgiveness, I think that's just a powerful example.
LA: Is there a piece of scripture or something from the Bible that you particularly hang on to, you go back to that gives you inspiration in your work?
AM: Yeah, I just I think I think about Jeremiah 'cause I wanna be a hopeful person, so I think of the plans that I have for you, not plans for your harm but for your welfare. I think about that scripture a lot. And then this may sound silly, but all of the scriptures that deal with burnt offerings come to mind 'cause I think about barbecue, so I know. [chuckle]
LA: Interesting. Say more.
AM: So Micah, the sixth chapter, right, we often go to the part that talks about walking humbly with your God, that. But before that, he's talking about burnt offerings, so I think that's a biblical imperative for barbecue. And he's just saying, "Hey that's not enough. You gotta do this other stuff." So.
LA: So the barbecue is not enough?
AM: Not enough. Yeah, it's pleasing but it's not enough.
LA: There's the both and.
LA: There's the offering, the tangible food that brings people together and there's also the walking in humbleness.
LA: And pursuing the work of justice.
LA: Those have to go hand in hand.
LA: So you're giving two talks today.
LA: And they're both served with a meal.
LA: Thank you for that.
AM: Oh yeah, absolutely. I'm glad we could pull it off.
LA: It's a excellent benefit of being here in person. So what do you hope that people will gain either from the meal experience or from your talks today?
AM: So many things. So first of all, with the first talk is on the theology of soul food and barbecue. So I've given you a taste already of that, but key for me is the fellowship. I want people to have a good time being in the space. I want them to understand this concept of radical hospitality. This idea that we can be inviting, we can bring people into a space and see the divine in them, and how meaningful and transformative that is.
And in our lives... The Bible has a lot of food imagery and a lot of hospitality references, and I invite people to think about are they making a welcome table in their life. Are you being inviting to people who disagree with you, who may not share your faith tradition? I think, unfortunately, in our times Christians can often be seen as just closed-minded and un-inviting, and I hope that we in our lives can just counteract that. I think there's tremendous opportunity.
And then I want people just to have fun with food and see the promise and possibility of food in bringing us together. And then my evening presentation is about the African-American presidential chefs and that's really just to show how foundational African-Americans have been to presidential food and to give... Through slavery and freedom, and to give just really more of a perspective of their contributions. I think they were celebrated in their times but I don't think today when people think about White House food, I don't think they think about the legacy of African-Americans.
Which is interesting because if you were just to line up, all of the White House cooks in a room most of them would be African-American women. That would be over time, that would be the face of White House cooking. And I don't think anybody really thinks about that. So I'm trying to bring African-American history, and show that it is American history, but to show just how faithful people were in all of these contexts. And then the last thing, I know I've given a long list. The last thing is just to show how the church has been important in creating those spaces to being a vehicle for fellowship and for reconciliation, and how even right now in our time, the church is a leader in food justice movements.
So the church is not dead, the church is still relevant and it's just a matter of we as Christians, if we give life to that. Otherwise it will die if we don't give life to it.
LA: Well, you've made us hungry to learn more. And if folks wanna learn more, they could read one of your books. One is called Soul Food, the other is called the President's Kitchen Cabinet.
LA: And we'll put links to these books on our podcast page on our website. Adrian Miller thank you so much.
AM: Thank you. Alright.
LA: It's been a very spicy conversation. I enjoyed it.
AM: Mission accomplished.
LA: I recorded my first interview with Adrian Miller in February 2020. Because of developments in the spring and summer of 2020 I wanted to talk to him more about what it means to build bridges in your work. The following interview was a follow up talk we had in August 2020.
So let's refresh our memories about what we were talking about a few months ago. Well, I'll start by saying, Adrian Miller, welcome back to The Making It Work podcast. We spoke a few months ago about your work, bringing people to the table together to speak about issues and how to make those conversations easier. And since the last time we spoke, there have been some significant developments. In the United States, there was the killing of George Floyd among other men and women of color, which launched widespread protests, against racially biased violence. There's been a new conversation worldwide about the racism that's ingrained in our workplaces and in our institutions. Has any of this changed the way that you think about your work?
AM: Absolutely. First of all, it's good to be with you again. And despite this tragic context, I'm glad we have an opportunity to discuss this a little bit more. It has changed my work only in this sense... Mainly in this sense, I should say. I find that there are more white people who are ready to explore the topic of racial justice and are willing to learn more, and I can't say that that's been the case before. As these things happened and as the community and worldwide response fomented over the killings of so many African-Americans... I have to tell you, I thought we would be at this place five years ago when that young man went into the church, the AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, Mother Emanuel, and killed the people in that Bible study group. I thought that that was gonna spark the kind of introspection that we're getting now, but it didn't for some reason.
And I think the difference is, one, there's a lot of pent up energy because before that happened, these events in May and late May, we were cooped up because of the pandemic, so a lot of people were at home due to stay-at-home orders. And then the other thing is, I think it's the video. Because I have to tell you, in my experiences when I tell white people about things that black people go through, I think at some point it's always discounted because it's so outside their own realm of experience. They're just thinking, "Well, that can't really happen." Even though they know me and they believe me to some extent, I think it's just always discounted. But with that video, the length of it and the brutality of it, and just to see this defenseless man be killed, there was no way to explain it away.
Because what I've experienced in my past is people will say, "Oh well, that person was resisting arrest." There's always some reason to excuse it. And I think just the lack of humanity and grace and love that was extended to this man calling for his mother as he was dying, I think profoundly affected a lot of people. And they just... I think a lot of people said, "Hey, something's really wrong here." And if I may give another example of why I think this moment is different, is shortly after that, a friend of mine who's a young white woman with small kids, she went on Facebook and she said, "Do you know what? I'm really disturbed by what happened, and I just think we need to talk about this. We as white people need to talk about this. So if you're a young mother with kids, I'm gonna be in this park on this day and at this time, and if you wanna join me and come talk to me about this, please join me." She had 40 people show up.
AM: And she posted... She gave a synopsis of their discussion afterwards. And I have to tell you, I've just never seen that happen. And I am convinced that if we're gonna really make a breakthrough on race, we have to have white people talking to other white people about this, for the reasons I explained earlier. Because when an African-American or a person of color is in a mix in these discussions, I think people tend to lean too heavily on the person of color to guide them through the discussion. I think people censor themselves because nobody wants to say the wrong thing and look like they might be racist. And so we really need honest discussion, and I think a lot of it is gonna be white people talking to white people they respect and saying, "Hey, there's a problem here, and this is why this is playing out this way."
LA: And you have personal experience in this, because in your work you've been this lightning rod for going into white spaces and talking about race. And you do it with a sense of humor, and you do it by bringing people together over the food and the barbecue. But you've met in the past with some resistance of white people wanting to talk about race, haven't you?
AM: I have. Yeah, I tell people somewhat jokingly that I have two gifts. One is, for some reason I have an ability to talk to white people about race, and then the second thing is I have this God-given patience that no matter what crazy thing comes out of somebody's mouth, I am willing to just sit there and hold the tension. And I think a lot of reason why our discussions break down is when somebody says something that another person thinks is crazy, they write them off, end of discussion, and they're out of there. And that's one thing that keeps us from having honest dialogue because we never really get to the guts of the matter because we're just so careful of not offending one another. And that's a good impulse. We just don't wanna hurt other people's feelings. But we're dealing with 400 years plus of some stuff, and it's not gonna go away very easily.
In my own experience, there's really just... I see two lingering challenges. One is the times that I have created these spaces to talk about race, it's pretty much people who already agree that there's something that needs to be done. So a challenge is, how do you get people who disagree with you, or who just maybe haven't even really thought about race? Because one thing that's an aspect of life in this country is white people can go through life for the most part without actually having to think about their race. So how do you provoke somebody to really consider that and to really be introspective about that and get them into that space? And then the other challenge is, again, when you're in that space, how do you make it inviting enough so that people will be honest with what they're really feeling?
Because a lot of the times, especially when we're talking about racism or any other "-ism", some of this stuff is learned behavior from people we love. We may have picked it up from parents, we may have picked it up from friends. However we reached those conclusions, sometimes it's calling us to have a reckoning with how we were raised, how we were socialized. I've had to do that with women. I had to think about how much I have embraced patriarchy and sexism, and how I have in subtle ways displayed that in my life, 'cause I think I'm a good guy. In discussions with women, I'm like, "Oh man, I have not even really thought about that." And those experiences with women and thinking about patriarchy and sexism actually deepened my thought about race because it was at that moment I said, "Okay, I think I'm a good guy, and I have these issues about women, and I just never thought about them because of my maleness. So what does that mean for a white person who's just never had to think about race? How can I automatically think that person is bad?"
LA: It's an interesting point because you're having kind of an awakening moment in terms of sexism, which many people would not be. And white people right now, myself included, are having an awakening moment due to racism. And as you were saying, it comes from being confronted with images, this video, that's possibly something that we've never seen before. As I was preparing for our conversation, I was thinking, "As a person of faith, what models do I have in Scripture to contextualize this moment?" I'm always thinking, "Did God's people ever go through something like this before? Is there some hope that we can get from the Bible?" I was thinking, "Individual change and institutional changes are things that we see in the Bible." I was thinking, "How do we get, one, individuals to have an awakening to the racism issue? And then how do we get systems to change?"
And tell me if you come up with another model in your thinking. The model I thought of was Paul, in the Book of Acts, starts off as a persecutor of the early Christians, and then he has this personal turnabout in Acts chapter nine, because he has a personal confrontation with Jesus, an encounter with Jesus, a supernatural experience where Jesus literally strikes him blind, and he changes course. And from there, Paul is able to, one, do a lot of work preaching about Jesus and convert a lot of Gentiles. And then later goes back, in Acts chapter 15, goes back to the Council of Jerusalem and convinces others that, "Hey, this system is not just for Jews, it's for Gentiles as well. The Holy Spirit is released to everybody." So it's one example I was thinking in the Bible of personal change sparking some individual change, but it came from the supernatural encounter element. I don't know if you see any link between either this biblical story or a different biblical story for the moment that we're going through.
AM: Yeah, I think about two stories. One is one that a lot of people have heard, is the Good Samaritan story. And the reason why I focus on that story is because in that teaching, Jesus was using two groups who hated each other, the Jewish people and Samaritans, for maybe the ultimate story of hospitality and kindness extended by a stranger. So I often use that as an entry point. And then another thing I think about is that in a lot of discussions that Jesus has with people in the Bible, Jesus is never the one to really end the conversation. He listens, he provokes, he asks questions, but it's always the other person who leaves. And so what I think Jesus is demonstrating to us is that we need to be engaged with people as far as they wanna take it.
And so what really saddens me in this case, especially with people of faith traditions, is how many times do you hear church people saying, "I'm not gonna even sit at the table with that person"? And to me, that's not the Christian example. The Christian example is to get in there and listen and discuss and love 'cause we recognize the humanity in everyone. And that's been problematic in my work because so many lines have been drawn based on race.
And I can't remember, I know it was a while ago when we talked about this, but I've got situations where if a pastor says, "black lives matter" from the pulpit, white people get up and leave mid sermon. Also, another anecdote from my work... I send out a monthly email newsletter, and then periodically I will send out other emails if something comes up in between. I can just tell you after seven years, if I do any email that explicitly talks about racial justice, I will get un-subscribes. It's not a matter of if, it's just a matter of when.
LA: How do you personally, in your own work, bounce back from those un-subscribes? Because I imagine that they feel like barbs. But are there elements of your own faith that help when you encounter racism in your personal work?
AM: Yeah. It's just a belief that I have a role and I'm trusting in God to lead me to where God thinks I need to be. So it's a constant process of discerning. And it helps me to wonder, "Am I communicating well? What can I do to maybe re-engage those people who unsubscribe?" So I take it as a challenge because I believe I'm on the right side of justice in this work. And so I think it's just a deep understanding of what we of good faith, we of good intentions face as challenges. 'Cause look, I never thought it was gonna be easy. Let me just say that. I just didn't think it was gonna be this hard.
LA: Your books about food are not just neutral books about food. They are very subtly bringing both black people and white people into a conversation about how racism is systematized in our culture.
AM: Yeah. And so some people have really... And I think that's another thing that people really like about me. They've said that, "You've figured out a way to talk about race that's inviting." And it's a way for me to plug into a conversation. So one thing I've been talking about lately is this idea of the welcome table. Sometimes I do the story about the great wedding banquet and other things. But the main point is, "Okay, God is calling us to set a welcome table for others, so how are we setting welcome tables in our lives? Are we just inviting the people we like? Or are we really doing a y'all come?" And I really think that food is a powerful tool for reconciliation.
So I'm right now working on a guide book. Basically like, "How do you have a dialogue, not just on race but any tough discussion, and use food as the way to gain momentum in that discussion?" So, For instance, almost every culture has some kind of dumpling, right?
AM: So what if you just had a potluck and you just said, "Hey, bring a dumpling from your food tradition"? Somebody'd show up with chicken and dumplings, somebody could show up with something else, somebody could show up with pork bao. And then you sit down there and then eventually you start to see the commonalities that we have.
LA: So Jesus in Matthew 22 talks about heaven as this feast of the unlikely invitees, as if the kingdom where God lives, whether that's in this life or the next, is a place where unlikely people come sit down at the table together. And I think you've pictured this really focused on, "Well, what is on the table?" Like the unlikely food combinations that might draw us together and start the conversation. "What are we talking about when we're sitting around at the table together?" We must be talking about, "What's different about us, but what's also similar about us?"
LA: And we're in this very weird moment where many people cannot physically go meet together over food because we're distanced in a global pandemic, which, as you said, has brought a lot of other issues to the fore. But it's also really difficult to meet with people face-to-face. So how do you think this changes conversations about race or conversations that we might have with others in our workplaces?
AM: Yeah, I think that's the real challenge now. I'm actually trying to think that through, because if I'm gonna put out a guide, that's definitely an element. Is like, "How do you do this going forward in a virtual way?" So one thing I think technology can help us in this sense. You could still have a large gathering, but now, at least with some platforms, you can break into smaller groups. So I think the concept still holds and you just say, "Hey, if your platform allows you to break into smaller groups, you should do this." So that's what I'm thinking right now. I think technology may help us with that in a way. Even though we're separated right now, I think there's still meaningful ways for us to connect.
One thing I do wonder is, is it easier for somebody who's on the fence about engaging in a discussion to be involved in a virtual discussion? Could that be a situation where the separation actually reduces anxiety?
LA: Tell us a little bit about this guide book.
Can you give us a little taste of your program, so to speak? Let's say I want to start a dialogue among my coworkers 'cause I work where there are people of different races and different backgrounds. And with what's going on in the world, I feel uncomfortable, other people feel uncomfortable coming together and trying to have these conversations, but also trying to maintain a cordial work atmosphere. A lot of us feel uncomfortable with what's going on in the news and how do we process it inside our office, so how would you suggest we go through some of your steps to open up some of these conversations?
AM: So I think the first thing would be just a typical potluck. No restrictions, just say, "Bring some food from your... Your favorite food" or whatever. And then I think... Let's just say it's a race dialogue. I think the first meeting is, for most of it, it's socializing. And then I think for the second half of that meeting, it would be setting some context for people of color or whatever to say, "Okay, here's the challenge we have in this time. I'm glad you stepped into this moment, this is what we'd like to do. And if you'd like to be a part of it, this is what it looks like." And then people can decide if they wanna be in it or not. I think that most people going into that meeting will have a heads-up, they'll know. But you never know. And then I think the second meeting is whatever the group of people of color who have decided to be engaged is just to describe the problem in more depth. So that would be the call. And then I think the really crucial thing is for that next meeting to be the response from people outside their community. We call this allyship in some contexts or others, but then it would be like, "Okay, we heard what you said, and here's how I'm responding to it." And there's gonna be interracial dialogue in all of these things, but I'm just talking about the main thrust of the meeting.
And then that fourth meeting, I think, is to talk about, "Okay, we've had a call and a response, we think we've discerned the problem, this fourth meeting is about, "What do we think we can do in our community or in our context to actually have meaningful change?" Now, that could end the whole discussion with just a set of recommendations, but my hope is, is that people glob on to at least one or two of those recommendations and continue the work. Because what I find is, first of all, there's fatigue from people of color in having to lead these discussions, only because I think they feel like they never go anywhere, nothing meaningful ever comes from them. From people outside the community, mainly white people, I find there's a fear of talking about these things. And for those who have overcome their fear, there's no sense of how to have the discussion. So I feel like they often have to have people of color help them get through that discussion. But then the critical part is actually starting to work on meaningful solutions, 'cause people don't wanna talk forever.
LA: They wanna do something. At some point, they wanna clear the table and get to doing some actual work together.
AM: Yeah. And the doing something may be a mix of things. It could be some things that are... Let's just say in a church context, maybe the doing something is to have a regular interracial Bible study. Or there could be recommendations like, "We need political action. We need to get our City Council to do what Asheville, North Carolina just did, which is to pass a formal resolution for reparations." So it's gonna take different forms in different communities.
LA: Or in a workplace context, it might look like, "Let's have a formal procedure for looking at what the makeup of our corporate board looks like and who is represented on that board. Or let's look at our mentorship programs and see who is represented in the promotional schedule and how those recommendations are made."
AM: Yeah. So, there's so many levels. So many levels, right?
LA: It really does relate to the picture you mentioned earlier in Jesus' parable of this great banquet in Matthew 22 where everyone is invited, but not everybody shows up. And your plan for inviting people into these tough conversations is to send out a lot of invitations. First, you invite them to the step one potluck where we're socializing and we're having a conversation. And then you invite them into a deeper conversation, "Would you like to be involved in talking to this more?" And at the end of this process, you invite them into, "Is there some action? Can we do a collective action together, either making some changes in the institution that we're a part of together or in the wider society?" But each step of the way is invitational, which is what Jesus also extended to the people around him or through his parable.
AM: Mm-hmm. And one of the funny things about that parable is there was so many ridiculous reasons why people wouldn't go, which shows Jesus using humor. Sometimes I don't think Jesus gets enough credit for the humor that he provided in some of his teachings.
LA: Today it'd be like, "I gotta check my Twitter feed. I gotta wash my cat. I just can't come today."
AM: Right. Well, this is a lesson for everybody. Jesus started out with 12 followers, right? So there's no reason for you to say, "Oh, I don't have enough people on my social media."
Jesus started with 12. But yeah, so we have to understand when we extend the invitation, not everybody's gonna say yes. But I think that also means we don't write somebody off when they say no, I think it's just a matter of circling back periodically and just making people know that they're always welcome. 'Cause we call it cancel culture today, but there's so much writing off. And just as a side note, I think there's a tremendous opportunity for people of faith to talk about forgiveness in this time, 'cause we are in a very unforgiving time. And part of it is the reckoning part. There's deep-seated grievance, deep, deep-seated grievance. And prior to this moment, people of color, marginalized people have asked for justice and they were denied, so they got a right to be mad. But if we want a shared future, at some point we have to forgive people and there has to be redemption, there has to be a way for somebody who messed up to come back. Because if there's no way to come back, I don't see how we ever get these problems solved. Because we're all human, we're all gonna make mistakes. I've already made three during this interview, but you've been gracious to me. You didn't end the interview, you just said, "I'm gonna hang in there with this dude even though he's not doing it right."
LA: I made 20 mistakes today before breakfast, I gotta tell you. We all need... I need that grace. I actually feel very hopeful listening to you say this. You're a black man and I'm a white woman, and during this period of increased awareness about the ways that I'm not even aware of my own privilege, it's felt very uncomfortable for me. And there have been times that my first instinct has been, "I don't wanna engage in that conversation, or I don't wanna engage in that conversation right now. I'll put it off a little while until I'm feeling a little bit more open to that." Which is my privilege that I get to shut down a conversation for a particular period of time. I understand that. So I feel a lot of grace from you saying it's a rolling invitation. The way Jesus would set up this banquet is to have the invitation consistently open. He doesn't just throw one potluck, he throws potluck after... He's been doing it for a couple of years now. We still keep making mistakes, even though the gospel's already been given, for some reason. Us humans keep making mistakes, and this grace continues to be available.
AM: Yeah. I just think there's tremendous opportunity. And I am hopeful, 'cause like I said, I think white people are now more in tune than I've ever seen. In fact, I'll just tell you a really quick story. On Twitter, this guy posted a video, an African-American guy, he had temporary tags on his car and so he was stopped and the cops were asking him questions and they were checking. And he said he looked over and he noticed this white woman was recording the entire interaction. At first, he didn't know what she was doing, and he said this whole thing took 15 minutes. The cops took their sweet time checking it. And he said that white woman had her camera rolling the entire 15 minutes and gave him a look that signaled to him that she was worried something was gonna happen to him, and so she wanted to make sure that there was evidence of it. And he's like, "Okay. Huh. Okay, ally." He's kind of funny about it, but that stuff... That has not happened before. So the question for us in this moment is... Typically the energy for these things dissipate after a few months. Is that gonna be the case or can we bring alive Gianna Floyd's words? That's the six-year-old daughter of George Floyd. She said, "My daddy changed the world." Can we make those words really come true? And the only way we can do that is we have good intention, good will, we have to keep at it. Even though we're tired, we gotta keep at it because we're dealing with some very powerful forces.
LA: Amen. And we can't fix them in one moment. It's gotta be one meal at a time, one bite at a time, one conversation at a time.
AM: Yes. That could preach.
LA: Adrian Miller, thank you so much for joining us for this conversation again and God bless you in this continuing work.
AM: Thank you. God bless you and thank you again for the opportunity to be with you virtually.
LA: It's been great, thank you.