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Hard working chefs forge community spirit

Weekly church meal is now a popular local tradition

  • Zhen Zi, Wenzhou
  • China
  • March 8, 2012
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Early every Sunday morning, kitchens at every church in Yueqing parish are busy. Middle-aged and elderly women can be seen rinsing rice, washing vegetables and frying meat.

Depending on the church’s size, they have to prepare meals for 100-600 people who come for Sunday Mass. The locals call this the “duty meal”.

At the beginning of Lunar New Year, the churches draw lots to determine who will be on duty and when.

These women volunteers are the “Marthas” of the “underground” community in Wenzhou diocese. They may not understand the homilies but they have very charitable minds.

These scenes are repeated every Sunday. This longstanding service has created a tacit understanding. If there are more than enough cooks a particular week, some will go to pray inside the Church.

The women take their name from a figure in a story from the Gospel of St Luke, when Jesus visited the home of two sisters called Martha and Mary. During his visit Martha prepared the food and did the housework, while her sister Mary listened to Jesus’s teachings.

In Yueqing, all churches have a kitchen and a big dining room with many tables.

There is a small box on one of the tables. Parishioners who walk past drop one yuan (US$0.16) into it before they enter the church.

This is not for charity, it tells the Marthas how much food to prepare and helps cover the expenses.

Living standards have risen and inflation has soared, meaning the money doesn’t cover all the food they buy. But they don’t care.

Today, there are fewer people dropping coins in the boxes, but the “duty meal” goes on.

The history of the duty meal dates back to the 1970s, when churches had not yet been returned by the state and there were very few Catholics. Lay leaders had to help priests to lead prayers at other Catholics’ homes after Sunday Mass.

“As it took time for them to return home, they ate together with the priests, whose meals were prepared by the laywomen,” recalled Yuan Jie, an elderly parishioner from Liushi Church.

“It soon became a tradition and continues to this day with Yueqing best preserving the custom from all the other parishes in Wenzhou,” he said.

Father Lu Xiaozhou, former parish priest of Yueqing, thinks the duty meal has cultivated a closer sense of community.

“We have a sense of community in the Eucharist and a sense of community in our everyday lives through the duty meal. It is worth preserving as it is a legacy of the faith of Wenzhou Catholics,” he said.

“Many children really enjoy having meals at the church. They will remember them no matter where they are in the future,” said a laywoman who has enjoyed the meals since childhood.

Another Liushi layman Gao Pengfei said: “People are so busy these days; they have less and less time with their families. Social problems arise more easily when family members lack communication and love.

“The custom of having a meal at church is fantastic as it provides a time for communication and mutual understanding,” he said.

These busy Chinese “Marthas” let everyone who comes to church feel its warmth and have carried on a wonderful custom for over three decades.

Jesus did not directly praise the hardworking Martha in the Bible but the Church has always recognized her work and the important role she played.

Related reports:

Once were angels, now are human

Assumption Day praise for Chinese laywomen

 

 
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