“Fidelity to the Word of God and not to an outcome.”
— Lore Ferguson Wilbert
“In order to find God in ourselves,
we must stop looking at ourselves…”
— Thomas Merton
“From the desire of being loved, deliver me, Jesus…
From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus.”
— Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val
“Stop being important.”
— Wylie Shellhouse
This intermingling of food service practicalities and spiritual writings captures the ministerial heart that drives Wylie’s work as Laity Lodge Youth Camp’s Food Service Manager. Since joining the LLYC team in January, she has brought a relentless intensity to her daily work, showing just as much attentiveness to inventory spreadsheets as she shows to theological essays about food, agriculture, and community. For instance, one morning she delivered a staff devotional confessing her struggle with pride and self-importance; later that week she was jubilant in finding the just-right storage bin for Echo Valley’s serving line.
A camper at LLYC since 2001, Wylie has spent every summer since 2008 in an LLYC kitchen. Sandwiched between four of those summers, both Wylie and her husband, Grant, earned their Masters of Divinity at Duke Divinity School. During that time, the couple resonated with the theologies found at the intersection of food and faith. In her studies, Wylie had the opportunity to develop and deepen the ministerial philosophy that underlies her work in the Singing Hills and Echo Valley kitchens. As she wrote in a paper for a Food and Faith class at Duke, Wylie believes that “what happens around the tables in our Ranch House is—or can be—ministry at its finest.” Preparing, serving, and sharing food together cultivates a community overflowing with the Gospel:
Food does not “equal” fuel. If we want to say that food “equals” anything, we would be better off saying that food “equals” community.
…When we eat together, we take part in each other’s lives, growing in our knowledge of and affection for one another. As we grow in knowledge and affection, we start to be knit together, and we begin to form a culture, a small kind of world, around the table. That culture helps us to know who we are, and how we should live. One of the key things we learn is how to be hospitable and to think of who we are and what we desire less selfishly, because it is always in terms of the other people around our table.
This community forms because the people around the table—friend, stranger, and “most insufferable camper in the world” alike—are gifts from God. They are signs that God has joined us at the table. The food on the table is a gift as well, which is why Wylie hopes to share a vision of “God’s love made delicious.”
Grand as this may sound, Wylie has no illusions that much of what we consume “leads us to believe that food has its start and finish as the work of human industry.” Food seems to be summoned from truck and store by money, arriving frozen, canned, vacuum-sealed, or contained in plastic. Despite these barriers separating food from the earth, even the most processed and ungrounded of foods are the result of God’s provision. Even bright orange mac ‘n cheese depends on some sort of wheat and dairy from God’s good Creation.
Wylie also does not fool herself about the toll that cooking for nearly 600 campers and staff members can take on her and her kitchen staff. By her own admission, the art and passages that fill her office are more about guarding herself against pride, despair, and anxiety than offering the sort of inspiration found in a motivational poster. Wylie has the foresight to recognize the temptations that come with her work. Amid exhaustion, judgment, unexpected challenges, and the craziness of camp, she knows she “will feel the temptation to choose isolation over community, to forget about those who are lonely, to eat without gratitude.”
Wylie knows such temptations will also beset her staff, so she ministers to them as well. For her, eating and cooking are first and foremost about people. If preparing and serving a meal are ministries, as she ardently contends that they are, the state of the ministers keenly matters.
“I don’t think the food’s ever going to be good if the people aren’t happy when they’re making it,” she says with a smile, “I don’t want the kale to be dressed with tears!”
The kitchen staffs offer the same prayers together at the start and close of each day, following liturgies Wylie and Grant assembled together during divinity school. The two kitchens are separated by a river, but united in their devotions. They spend time in silence and listening attentively to the Scripture readings from the daily lectionary. Wylie marks the feast days of the Christian Year, noting them on the kitchen whiteboard next to the lists of prep tasks and dietary needs.
In all this and more, Wylie desires to cultivate kitchens where summer work becomes ministry. Stirring the tomato soup with a prayer that the soup may stir the souls of others to consider the awe and wonder of God. Ranch House dining rooms hum with memories of cabin activities, as well as the gifted community of a shared table.
“It may sometimes seem like a wasted effort, but I tell you, nothing done in love, in the name of Christ, is ever a wasted effort,” Wylie confessed. “These kids notice, and they remember, and Christ notices, and Christ remembers. So, every day this summer, come to the table and we will feast on God’s love.”