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Finding God in a Bag of Groceries: Sharing Food, Discovering Grace

Finding God in a Bag of Groceries: Sharing Food, Discovering Grace

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by Laura Lapins Willis

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If your pantry was empty, your children hungry, your electricity cut off for nonpayment, and you saw no prospect of support, what would you do? For a decade in a rural Tennessee community, you went to a shabby building behind a church and found Laura Willis.

Running a program to help the needy, Laura discovered a world of people she never knew: the lonely and


If your pantry was empty, your children hungry, your electricity cut off for nonpayment, and you saw no prospect of support, what would you do? For a decade in a rural Tennessee community, you went to a shabby building behind a church and found Laura Willis.

Running a program to help the needy, Laura discovered a world of people she never knew: the lonely and unemployed, chronically poor families, and middle-class folks surprised to be struggling in a great recession. And to each, she offered a bag of groceries, a compassionate ear, and a heart of love.

Taking a tiny food pantry and watching it grow to feed hundreds, Laura learned about her own hunger for God and began to discern her own spiritual directions, learning how her calling card—a bag of groceries—could be a gift to others and to herself of abundance and grace.

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Finding God in a Bag of Groceries

Sharing Food, Discovering Grace


Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2013 Laura Lapins Willis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-7040-1





Be who God meant you to be and you will set the whole world on fire. —SAINT CATHERINE OF SIENA


I didn't lie, cheat, or steal. But according to my church, I broke the rules.

I baptized someone.

In the tradition of the church I belong to—the Episcopal Church—rituals and protocols give our denomination its structure (many of which are found in our guidebook, The Book of Common Prayer). Only ordained priests are authorized to baptize people, unless in cases of emergency, such as someone dying.

But, Rebecca asked me to baptize her as we stood at the altar in the church, next to the baptismal font full of water. She begged me to baptize her. Her mother was there, supporting Rebecca's transformation, weeping.

I couldn't say no, no matter what the rules said.

I had to baptize Rebecca.

I wanted to do it.

* * *

Rebecca had been a client for only a few months at the Community Action Committee (CAC), the outreach ministry I directed in Sewanee, Tennessee. Like many of my clients, she was low-functioning and had serious health problems. When I first met her, she was pregnant with her second child. She was in her mid-twenties but looked like a teenager—barely five feet tall with a round face, clear ivory skin, and long brown hair.

Rebecca's baby—Miriam was her name—was born prematurely the following January, with grave health problems. She spent many weeks in the hospital before Rebecca and her husband, Jason, were finally able to take her home in late February.

In early March, Miriam died. She died in her father's arms, while they sat in a rocking chair near the wood-burning stove, trying to keep warm in their small, dilapidated house. Miriam had a seizure and stopped breathing and died. Rather than call 911 and wait for an ambulance (they live in a very remote area in a deep cove with limited access), Rebecca and Jason put Miriam in the car and drove her twenty-five minutes to the nearest hospital, a facility that mostly provides triage for our rural community. She didn't breathe during the entire trip.

Miriam was airlifted to Chattanooga, where doctors and nurses brought her back to life. She spent almost fifty days in the ICU. Jason and Rebecca lived at the Ronald McDonald House adjacent to the hospital, sixty miles from home, coming back to Sewanee occasionally to see their older daughter and to get a few things.

On one of their trips home, Rebecca came to see me. She wept as she told me about how many machines Miriam was connected to, how she longed to hold her baby girl, how she hated being away from home, how she worried about Miriam's life (and death), how she appreciated Jason through this crisis, and how she wished her own mother could come help her. All I could do was listen quietly, offer empathetic murmurs of hope, offer her tissues as she cried, and give her a sack of food for her older child. I encouraged Rebecca to find the hospital chaplain when she returned to Chattanooga. She needed to talk to someone with a lot more training than I to help her with the tragedy unfolding in her family's life.

Miraculously, Miriam came home in June, connected to tubes and monitors and all kinds of devices to help keep her alive. Rebecca proudly told me how she and Jason had been trained on the equipment and that they knew how to care for her. Home health nurses came by to help them, too.

I silently worried about Rebecca's ability to handle complex equipment and complicated instructions. I worried about her ability to cope with the needs of a severely disabled infant. The MRIs were inconclusive about brain damage, but Miriam's weight had dropped and she was being fed only through a tube. But Rebecca was delighted to be home and to have the chance to mother her new baby. We prayed together for God to give Rebecca strength to carry on.

A week later, Rebecca came to see me again. This time, she was hysterical and overwhelmed. She hadn't slept in days, and it showed. Her eyes were dull, her hair disheveled, and she was wearing a dirty T-shirt, pajama bottoms, and flip-flops. Her mother, Norma, had arrived from the Midwest and was helping, but Rebecca said she didn't know how long she could go on with this exhausting and difficult life.

"Maybe they are better off without me," she said.

"You are a precious child of God," I told her as I locked my eyes to hers. "God gave you Miriam for a reason—she needs you. Take care of yourself and get the rest you need. Your family loves and cares for you, and I do too." I sent Rebecca straight to her physician and her therapist, who put her on antidepressants and antianxiety drugs.

Just a few weeks later, Rebecca and Norma came by. Miriam was doing great and was at home with Jason. Rebecca was as bright and cheerful as I'd ever seen her. She had gotten dressed up to come into town, had put on makeup and fixed her hair, and her spirit was bright. Rebecca told me she had "found Jesus." She said that Jesus would forgive her sins if she accepted him.

This kind of talk is uncomfortable for me. It seems so based in emotion. I would much rather consider God in my head, and less in my heart. But I listened and nodded. I could hear in her voice that something had changed.

Our conversation turned to prayer. Rebecca said she didn't know how to pray and asked me if I could tell her how I learned to pray. I told her about contemplative prayer—all God asks us to do is to open up a space in our hearts for God, and God is already there. I described to her how she could begin by sitting quietly for twenty minutes, clearing her mind, and opening herself to God.

"There's a Monday night group of people who pray this way together in our church," I told her. "Maybe you'd like to come sometime." She said she would, and I told her I'd show her where they met so if I wasn't there, she wouldn't be intimidated by not knowing her way around.

The office phone was ringing and I knew it was time to wrap things up. I asked if they would like to pray together. We pulled our folding chairs close and held hands as Norma started. She offered a lovely prayer giving thanks for Rebecca and Miriam and for CAC.

"You next," Rebecca whispered after Norma finished. I did the best I could, thanking God for the life of this family. Rebecca then prayed heartfelt words of thanksgiving and asked Jesus to forgive her sins. When she finished, I closed by saying the Lord's Prayer, inviting them to join in. Norma voiced the words with me, and Rebecca started, but then stopped after the first lines. I didn't look up to see what was going on. I assumed she was overcome with emotion. We all were.

After the final "Amen," Rebecca looked up at her mother and said, "I wish I knew all of that prayer. It's so pretty. I should learn it."

Oh, sweet girl, wholly unchurched. She didn't know the words to the Lord's Prayer. Those of us who go to church, or grew up in homes where families did, take this prayer for granted. This is the first prayer we teach our toddlers, and I assumed that everyone taught it to their children, but it was foreign to Rebecca. She was ashamed, but I said that of all the prayers she could learn, this was a good one to know: it pretty much covered all the bases if you didn't know what to pray. Norma said she'd teach it to Rebecca.

I handed them each a bag of groceries from the corner of my office and offered to help them to their car. As we got to the parking lot, I asked, "Do you want to see where the contemplative prayer group meets?" We walked over and went inside the church.

Rebecca and Norma oohed and aahed over the beautiful sanctuary of our little parish church, even in the dim light of that rainy day. It is lovely, sacred space—I failed to appreciate its beauty fully since I was there almost every day. I turned on the lights, showed them where the prayer circle would be, and described how the group worked.

While I was talking, the two women were staring at the altar and the altar rail, looking a bit confused.

"What happens here?" Rebecca asked, touching the smooth, polished oak wood of the rail.

"This is where we take Communion," I said.

"I'm sorry, I don't know what that is," Rebecca said quietly.

"The crackers," her mother whispered under her breath, seeming a bit embarrassed that she had to explain this to her daughter.

So I described Communion to Rebecca, not in fancy "priest language" by calling it the Holy Eucharist, but using the stories I thought they would know. I described the Last Supper, and how Jesus promised us that He would be present to us in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup.

"Each week," I said, "we gather here and do this," and I acted out the priest's role, moving around the altar rail offering invisible bread to the invisible hungry, saying the words I so deeply longed to say at Sunday services with real bread: "The body of Christ, the bread of heaven." Then I did my usual part in this rite, holding an invisible chalice, offering invisible wine to the thirsty. "The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation." I told them of the explicit connection between this sacramental act on Sundays and our ministry at CAC.

"When we pack those grocery bags you take home each time you come here, we have blessed them the same way the priest blesses the bread and wine at Communion. It is the same thing," I said, "Jesus among us and with us and in us." I stopped talking. The altar was quiet yet it was vibrating with the energy of the Holy Spirit swirling around us as we stood in silence, contemplating the power of those words and actions, those promises of God.

"Can I come to church here and take Communion?" Rebecca asked.

"Yes, of course," I said. "Have you been baptized?" I added.

"No, but I want to be," Rebecca said expectantly. "Jason and I both want to be, and we want Miriam and Susannah to be. Can you baptize us?"

My throat closed and my heart leapt. I blinked back the tears from my eyes.

* * *

"Can you baptize us?"

All these years I had been waiting and watching for a sign that God wanted me to do something more in the church. All this time of holding steady and being faithful I yearned for a signal from God about my calling. Was this it? Would I now know what I was supposed to do? I wanted to burst into tears and declare, "Finally." With her question, Rebecca seemed to be offering me the answer I was looking for.

As I'd told Rebecca, feeding people wholesome groceries is much like offering people the bread and wine during Communion at church. But I wanted God to tell me that I should be an ordained priest, that God wanted me to baptize people. Maybe this was my burning bush, my neon sign, my phone call from above.

"Can you baptize us?"

And then the rumble of thunder from the storm outside returned me to reality.

We were standing in the cool, empty church, and the baptismal font was full of water. But there were no witnesses, no church full of believers and friends, no one else to help Rebecca in her journey if I baptized her right then. There was also no one to stop me. But where was her family? Where was her support system? Isn't that an important part of the baptismal service, when the congregation gets to have its voice? Did Rebecca even know what she was asking for? For teens and adults, baptism often comes after weeks and weeks of study and preparation. Rebecca had done none of that.

In a flash, I recalled the baptisms I'd been a part of in the past. My own two baptisms, each so different: one a sprinkling by my parents' choice, one a full immersion of my own decision. My older son Addison's baptism at the Easter Vigil, full of fragrant lilies that decorated the church. My younger son Aaron's baptism on All Saints' Day, surrounded by infants who would grow up to be his closest friends. Both boys were in starched baptismal gowns, cradled in our arms, wrapped in the sweet smell of baby. I remembered the baptisms I witnessed as a teenager doing mission work in Brazil—people gathered at the side of a cool stream, wading waist deep, in their everyday clothes, into the muddy swirling waters to feel the presence and power of God's Holy Spirit. I remembered the celebratory baptisms of my godsons. The baptisms of friends. Each event had a flavor of its own—a style depending on the time and place.

Then another array of thoughts went through my mind. First I thought, Yes. I can baptize you because God has called me as His own and I am part of God's community. Of course, I can baptize you. Let's get started.

That was quickly followed by: No. I can't baptize you. I'm not a priest, not authorized by the powers of the Episcopal Church. They decide who does and who does not get to baptize or celebrate the Eucharist or anything else. I have to get someone else. You have to wait.

Then, I had a devious thought: Yes, I can baptize you, but let's not tell. I'm breaking the rules if I say yes, but I don't care.

In my heart, at the purest point I can know, I wanted to do something—anything—to help this poor, suffering girl. Her baby was going to die. Her mother would leave. Her husband wasn't with her to support her in this time of crisis. Who would be with her but God? If I could help bring her closer to God through baptizing her, I would do that. By my presence, she could have a positive experience with God, or the church, that might sustain her in the future. On the flip side, if I said no she might never come back to a church.

Of course, it was ridiculous to think I was the only person who could bring her to God. Wouldn't God find her whenever God wanted, without me?

At that moment, I wasn't so sure.

* * *

So I said to her, "Rebecca, more than anything in this world, I want to be a priest so I can do just that, so I can baptize people and offer the bread at Communion. But because I'm not a priest, I'm not allowed to do that." I wanted to cry out and tell her my story of struggle and heartbreak and confusion about my calling, but this time wasn't about me, and my story wasn't a part of this day.

Norma and Rebecca looked at me, confused. They didn't understand Episcopal Church policies and hierarchy. In their tradition, if someone wants to be baptized, you take them down to the nearest creek and get on with it. As I saw their puzzled faces, I got mad at myself for the ridiculous words I had just said to this dear girl, this child of God, asking for something I seemed unwilling to give her because of a rule in an organization she'd never understand.

I took a deep breath and began my rule-breaking. I knew I was venturing into the unknown, but I didn't feel alone or as if I was doing anything other than what God was leading me to do.

"You know what," I said, "I can't baptize all your family, but ..." I paused as I prepared to commit this act of faith, "I can baptize you today. I'm not supposed to, but I don't think God will mind. We have a service we like to use," and I reached for two copies of the Book of Common Prayer. I quickly found the page where the baptism service begins, handed one red-bound book to Norma, and showed her where to follow along. Rebecca looked on with me as I explained to her that the important part of being baptized was to listen carefully and answer the questions as truthfully as she could.

Silently, I was praying, Dear God, please do not let anyone walk through the doors of the church right now. I don't want to explain this or interrupt it. There is too much love here, and You are with us. Please keep that door closed for a few minutes. Please God, let this go on.

Some of this prayer was selfishness on my part. I didn't want to get caught breaking the rules. Mostly I didn't want to have to interrupt this beautiful experience to explain to anyone else what was going on. The people who needed to know were right there—God and Rebecca—bound together in the Holy Spirit. Norma and I were the lucky ones who got to witness it. The rain kept coming down, making a quiet patter on the roof as we began.

I asked Norma to present Rebecca for baptism. I looked deeply into Rebecca's eyes and asked her the only question that really mattered: "Do you desire to be baptized?"

"Yes!" she said clearly, without a sound of doubt in her voice.

I moved through the rubrics of the baptismal service. I was the priest for just a few minutes.

"Do you renounce Satan ...? Do you renounce evil powers ...? Do you renounce sinful desires ...?"

"I do," she said emphatically each time. She wasn't reading the prayer book with us, which instructs the candidate to say, "I renounce them." She was listening to my questions and answering from her heart.

"Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept Him as your Savior?"

"Yes!" she said enthusiastically.

"Do you put your whole trust in His grace and love?"

"Yes," she said, smiling brightly through her tears.

"Do you promise to follow and obey Him as your Lord?"

"Yes." She turned more serious at this question.

I turned to Norma and asked her, "Will you support Rebecca in her life in Christ?"

"Yes," she said. They hugged each other and clung together as they both wept.


Excerpted from Finding God in a Bag of Groceries by LAURA LAPINS WILLIS. Copyright © 2013 Laura Lapins Willis. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Laura Lapins Willis has been observing people and writing about them since she was 8 years old. She began her career as a journalist, but then moved into the nonprofit world to make a difference in people’s lives. Willis has served in a variety of influential roles, including helping found an environmental group in Washington, DC, and work as grant writer and fund-raiser for the University of the South. She and her husband have two sons, and live in Sewanee, Tennessee, where she is known for her work at the Community Action Committee as a community organizer and advocate.

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Finding God in a Bag of Groceries 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book brings to life the struggles and often vicious circle of poverty in America while also showing us that what we initially may feel is our calling is just a disguise for what we are actually meant to do. Beautifully written and not too "preachy."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very inspiring and moving stories. I felt like I was in the chapel standing next to the Baptismal Font with Laura.