The Great American Potluck | Sojourners

The Great American Potluck

Earlier this month, my church participated in a radical, historic, gospel-proclaiming tradition that stretches back to the time of Jesus: eating together. Every month, members of the congregation prepare food from their culture and bring it to the lobby of our small storefront church. This is commonly known as a church potluck.

By the time the sermon came to a close, the sanctuary was filled with the smell of the food that was in the lobby. If you listened closely, you could hear the stomach of your neighbor rumbling in anticipation.

Located just south of Rutgers University, our church is filled with folks from across Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Europe. There weren’t just hotdogs and New Jersey subs at this potluck; there were pans filled with Italian meatballs next to fresh samosas, and Spanish rice and beans were placed next to fresh pasta salads. Food from cultures around the world were brought to a table with love and generosity — each to be tasted, appreciated, and used for nourishment, both spiritually and physically.

But as I ate, and watched neighbors across cultural and ethnic lines share food and stories, I thought of the old ‘70s Schoolhouse Rock song: “The Great American Melting Pot.”

“My grandmother came from Russia, a satchel on her knee, my grandfather had his father's cap he brought from Italy,” the song goes. “They'd heard about a country where life might let them win, they paid the fare to America and there they melted in. Lovely Lady Liberty with her book of recipes and the finest one she's got is the great American melting pot.”

At the potluck, my thoughts continued to drift. I remembered watching this video in a middle school history course, waiting in anticipation for the song to mention my homeland, India — waiting to see Black and brown immigrants portrayed in the video. But as the song continued, the primary focus was on countries and immigrants who were white.

The lack of non-white immigrants depicted in the video reflects the greater reality of the melting pot — one of death, silencing, and erasure. These, too, are ingredients for the melting pot. The song calls students to “go on and ask your grandma, hear what she has to tell [about] how great [it is] to be an American.” However, students will find a stark contrast to this light-hearted tune if one’s grandmother suffered under Jim Crow or was placed in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. It was not so great to be an American for all of our grandparents.

Beyond the catchy melody and optimistic cartoons, the melting pot is a disarming appeal to diversity that projects an innocent history of America. By subsuming all identities into whiteness while erasing the histories and experiences of Indigenous, African, Asian, and other minority experiences, the melting pot perspective treats minorities like seasoning meant to be added to a soup. But when the soup is whiteness, there is no amount of seasoning that can make it edible.

When I watched the “Great American Melting Pot” again this week, my heart sank as cartoon immigrants, one after another, fell from the sky and optimistically dove into the melting pot. In contrast to my sadness, the song joyfully continued, “You simply melt right in, it doesn't matter what your skin. It doesn't matter where you're from or your religion, you jump right in to the great American melting pot.” But it does matter, I thought. It does matter.

It matters because the melting pot analogy is not about diversity, rather it is a call for assimilation. This has led countless racial minorities to believe the lie that there’s a place for all of us here in the United States. However, this vision of assimilation intentionally pits racial minorities against one another, furthering false stereotypes and racialized myths, and overlooking systems and structures rooted in racism.

As Christians, I believe we must reject the project of the melting pot. In the Bible, the church is not portrayed as an ambiguous, homogeneous entity. Instead, difference and diversity are understood as a strength — as God’s gift to the church (Acts 2). Our call to unity in Christ is not found in assimilation, but in the fullness of our particularities as Jews and Greeks, men and women, rich and poor — all are brought together to share meals and bear witness to the work of God in our communities. Jesus shows us that this practice of gathering together is a radical act of rejecting the racial and social hierarchies of our world (Matthew 9; Mark 2; Luke 14). Gathering together across social and class differences upset the rulers of Jesus’ time, and will certainly upset the status-quo of white supremacy in our own time.

Muslim scholar Eboo Patel argues that discerning God’s work in our communities begins with offering a new vision that upsets that status quo of white supremacy in the United States. In his book, Out of Many Faiths, Patel suggests the U.S. be seen as a potluck rather than a melting pot. Patel invites the reader to imagine a nation in which faith communities might bring the fullness of themselves to their communities, not to be appropriated or oppressed, but loved. “For the larger community to eat, everybody needs to bring a dish,” Patel explains. “Along the way, conversation happens, palates widen, fusions emerge.”

Although Patel is speaking primarily about religious pluralism in the United States, I believe his analogy of a potluck should not only be applied to the cultural, ethnic, religious, and ideological differences found in our nation but also in the Christian church. At this holy potluck, each dish fully belongs. No dish is second-class or American-adjacent. Each dish, from potato soups to fruit salads to hamburgers to biryanis, is welcomed to the table. To taste the dishes of our neighbor is not to appropriate the dish or claim it as one’s own. Instead, it is an opportunity and invitation to practice empathy by tasting and experiencing the perspective of another.

Patel warns us that at this potluck, “there are tensions, and there is feasting.” Bringing diverse stories into a shared community will come with questions as well as anger and frustration as oppressed and oppressor dine together. There will be questions and awkward silences. We will have to ask our neighbor “what is this dish?” and as we eat they will have to tell us its story — some of that story will be a history of trauma and colonialism, other stories will revolve around laughter and community. This is, I believe, the beginning of healing for the United States and the church.

Once we imagine and embrace this country as a potluck, the idea of the melting pot grows increasingly unappetizing. If one were to take everything at a potluck and throw it into one large pot, it would ruin each dish. More than that, it would ultimately dishonor the craft, beauty, and history of each unique dish brought to the table. Each dish is a story meant to be heard in its fullness, not to be thrown into a big pot and boiled down into one substance. Nobody wants to eat that.