In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Aunt Voula (upon learning Ian is a vegetarian) says, “What do you mean, you don't eat no meat?” (the entire room stops, in shock) ... “That's okay; I make lamb.” Vegetarians, like me, are used to all kind of surprising responses from family, friends, and acquaintances when they learn we don’t eat meat. In most cases our family and close friends know of our diet choice and plan accordingly when sharing a meal or visiting their homes. But often our hosts are unaware of our eating preferences. In particular social or cultural settings these encounters can be sensitive and even become complicated.
I became vegetarian in1982. At the time I had recently embraced the Christian faith as taught by the Seventh-day Adventist church. The SDA church promotes a vegetarian diet as a means of physical purification that helps the person achieve a deeper level of spirituality. I accepted this teaching and observed a vegetarian diet for the following nine years. By the middle of 1991, after going through a period of spiritual introspection, I decided to leave the SDA church. Soon after I left the SDA church, I stopped been a vegetarian. During the following three years I attended seminary. After seminary I began my pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church.
I once again felt a strong yearning to stop eating meat, but I postponed my decision for a few years. I was not ready to face the social implications. Most of all, I was very sensitive to how I would be perceived, and simply didn’t want to cause offense to the people I was called to love and welcome. My conscience haunted me; nevertheless, it was about ten years before I finally decided to take the big step. That day in 2005, I told myself, “This is it, today is the day.” For the most part, I have a strong will; now pastries... that's another story we can discuss later.
Very soon after I began my vegetarian diet, I was confronted with the reality of the social pressures of ministry. As pastor, I was expected to be polite and avoid offending people, especially my parishioners. When you are invited to a home and they offer you food, you simply take it and eat. I believe that, as a spiritual leader you must avoid offending others at all costs.
It is fascinating to me what an important role meals play in our social and even spiritual interactions. In my case, being a Latino made the situation even more complicated. In some cultures, hosts avoid putting guests in awkward situations; they do not pressure or question their guests. That’s not the case in my culture. Sometimes the guest is the object of the joke.
Very soon after I started my vegetarian diet, I decided not to make exceptions, which meant that my dear Mexican friends would have to go the extra mile and experiment in making a vegetarian pozole; I would have to bring my veggie burgers to the park cook out. My decision had a few important implications. From that moment on I would have to make an extra effort not to make my parishioners, friends, and even strangers feel uncomfortable because of my “unconventional" eating habits. I soon learned the obvious: it's better not to wait until you have to face an awkward situation. I try to always make my eating preferences known in advance. To this day, before visiting my relatives in Puerto Rico, I have to remind them I don’t eat meat. I always make an extra effort to make them feel at ease. Growing up I hated beans, and tomatoes were a no-no, but through the years I've taught myself to eat all kinds of vegetables. So, before I visit, I tell my host I’m easy to please, and would eat any kind of vegetable based meal (including legumes, grains, etc.).
After more than 12 years, I feel very comfortable letting people know of my vegetarian diet. At the same time vegetarianism is more common and socially accepted today. Often it's actually seen by many as something to aspire to. I welcome those few occasions when people inquire about my reasons for choosing a vegetarian diet. I love to share about my strong conviction for the sanctity of all life, including animals’ lives.
For the most part, people will respect our convictions and personal choices. It is our responsibility to be kind and respectful in turn. We should avoid shoving our theological preferences on others, even knowing some will do it to us.
The advice of scripture always comes in handy: “So embrace, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, a spirit of mercy, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, and long-suffering. Bear with one another… And above all these things, embrace love, which is the bond of perfection.” (Col. 3:12-14)