by Sarah Withrow King
When my husband and I were first married, there was a darling older man at church who, every week without fail, invited us over for a steak dinner. At this point in our church life, we already had to eat at home or bring our own food to Wednesday night meals, the annual church picnic was meat-centric (and sometimes held at the local zoo), the church periodically invited a petting zoo to come and entertain the children, and the pastor sometimes talked about animals in ways that made me uncomfortable (one particularly memorable sermon was when he described participating in the slaughter of a goat in Kenya). So, my older friend’s good natured ribbing was just part of the Presbyterian package.
I became a member of that church after about a year of being vegan. YouTube didn’t exist yet, so I had cut my animal protection teeth on DVDs of undercover investigations. I was working full time at an animal rights organization and my days were steeped in suffering; it overwhelmed me. In my first year as a vegan, I had seen more graphic footage of the nightmarish reality of using animals for food, clothing, as test subjects, or for entertainment than I ever thought I could possibly handle. I fought through my own discomfort and educated myself because I knew, I knew in the core of my being, that it was wrong for us to exercise dominion like tyrants. And I wanted to honor the sacrifice of the men and women who loved animals, just like I did, but who had put aside their sorrow and horror to capture footage that would lead to lives being saved, cruel practices stopped, and improved conditions for animals and humans.
But instead of being a haven from suffering, church was another battleground. Another place where I had to be a strategic advocate, always on, where I had to laugh off the jokes and jabs so that I wouldn’t come off as one of “those” vegans. A place where I had to explain myself every week and hope I’d still be welcome. I would say, “Eden was vegan.” And they would say, “But Noah.” I would say, “We kill 27 billion animals a year.” And they would say, “Thank God for that.” I would say, “We’re cruel to animals.” And they would say, “But it’s cheaper.”
I thought about leaving and began to understand why so many of my friends at work who had grown up in the church had also left their faith. I struggled, as they did, with the idea that a compassionate and just God would “allow” such suffering. I struggled, as they did, with the idea that followers of the “Prince of Peace” would so casually and callously laugh off the horrific practices required to get cheap meat to their plates. I struggled, as they did, with the hypocrisy of doting on one kind of animal and paying someone to slit the throat of another.
Instead of leaving, I went deeper. I led worship, helped with the youth group, planned the fall picnic. Showed up, week after week after week, for years. Asked whether there was going to be a vegetarian option, was gracious when there was and when there wasn’t. My husband and I formed lasting friendships, joined a small group, and tithed. And by the time we left Norfolk for Philadelphia, the church had implemented a policy requiring a vegan option at every church meal, I was asked to write a creation care campaign for the church (which included recommendations to reduce or eliminate the consumption of animal products), I heard my pastor use “soy latte” in a sermon, we set up a “duck cam” to monitor and protected the space around a mama duck nesting in the grass near the church’s main entrance, and a handful of vegans had sprouted, some new but some coming out of hiding since I had been there to be the annoying one.
Would any of that had happened if I had left sooner?
Today, I get to talk with a lot of vegan or vegetarian Christians, spanning a wide age range. Our current church community holds a lot of potlucks at which there are always loads of vegan options. When the pastors talked about creation care, they got in touch with me to ask how they could include animals in their sermons. The pastor of my congregation used “veggie burger” in a sermon illustration recently. When I thanked her, she said she specifically used veggie burger instead of “hamburger” because she was thinking of me.
12% of millennials identify as “faithful vegetarians.” My own dad stopped eating chickens long before I did and is now mostly vegan, bringing his own vegan creations to church potlucks in his Idaho town. There are people all over the world who are going to church and who are vegan. But I hear from too many that they are thinking of leaving their church, that the sometimes-not-so-good-natured ribbing about ribs has gotten to be too much. A few online friends have proposed starting vegan churches in their communities or holding worship meetings online with other vegan Christians. They’re looking for safety, for a place to belong, and I can’t blame them.
But I urge you, I plea with you, to stay rooted. To stay connected, intimately and authentically, face-to-face with the people in your community.
I was talking with a friend once who attended a church that didn’t ordain women for the ministry. Knowing that my friend was socially progressive, I asked him if it bothered him. He looked at me incredulously and said, “Bother me?! Of course it bothers me! I hate it! But I can’t change anything if I’m not there.”
Conflicts and divisions in the church are not new. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is written to a church divided. In the opening lines, he offers his own plea: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (1:10) It becomes clear as we continue to read that the Corinthian church has been fractured by disagreements over leadership, discipleship, money, food, sex, laws, circumcision...you name it. Paul answers specific inquiries from the church, and then begins to speak more generally. He exhorts the church to behave as a body, parts operating in cooperation with one another for the health of the whole; elevates the importance of love, spells out just what love is, reminding his readers that they don’t...can’t...see clearly, yet; and he urges the Corinthians to learn how to love one another in the midst of each person’s pursuit of their diverse gifts and calling.
It’s hard. I’ve been there. It’s hard to stick with a group of people who just don’t seem to “get” us. And I want to be clear that the call to stay rooted is not at all a call to stay in an abusive situation. There’s a difference between awkward, uncomfortable, and frustrating, on the one hand, and abusive, on the other.
When my frustration level starts to peak, here are a few things that help me refocus and recommit to rootedness:
- I look at the movement in the church as a whole towards caring for animals. CreatureKind was born out of this movement, this moment, in which evangelicals, the Pope, and church bodies in between have declared that animals matter to Christians.
- I invite a group of omnivore friends over and feed them a homemade meal. Yes, it’s vegan, but the focus is on friendship and fellowship, not conversion.
- I observe the movement of the Spirit towards reconciliation through the little victories, and rejoice in each one (i.e. an acquaintance who rescues an injured bird or adopts a pet instead of purchasing from a breeder or pet shop; a restaurant near me that serves tofu; a friend who watches a documentary about animals and is moved in some way, etc.)
And always, I remind myself of Paul’s words in Romans 8:18-25:
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”