Meeting for Soup

I rarely help out with First-day school, but they needed a substitute one Sunday, so I volunteered. In the days leading up to my big teaching gig, I received two phone calls from our very efficient coordinator and e-mails from four members of the Religious Education Committee, including an attachment with my lesson plan all spelled out. So it was pretty funny when another teacher and I finally sat down with the kids, and the lesson plan was derailed within a few minutes.

The stated objective of the lesson was "to explore how the choices we make about our food affect our relationships with the Earth, each other, and with God." We were given a series of questions to discuss, with pieces of paper with large cookies printed on one side to record our answers. We were then supposed to make vegetable soup, after reading the book Stone Soup (the moral of which is that people should share).

Before I even asked the first question about food, the seven-year-old daughter of the woman who had designed the lesson raised her hand and suggested that we give our soup to the homeless families that will be staying in our meetinghouse soon. Many children nodded in agreement, but then someone else reminded us that there was a business meeting happening that day, and maybe the people staying for that would like our soup. The woman who fixes the food for the business meeting was walking by, so she was called in for a consultation. We were told that the business meeting had plenty of food and that we could certainly freeze our soup for the homeless families. But then someone else suggested that we should get to taste the soup before we give it to the homeless families—meanwhile, several other hands had gone into the air from children eager to suggest alternative ways to divide the soup. It was just like an adult Quaker meeting for business: wonderfully inclusive and frustratingly time-consuming.

I pointed out that if the discussion went on too long we wouldn’t have any time to make the soup, so one girl suggested they all put their heads down and raise their hands to show which option they favored. She explained that putting their heads down would keep people from just copying their friends, like the girl at her school who always copied her. I affirmed that would be a quick solution, but asked if anyone could explain why Quakers generally don’t vote to solve such problems. A nine-year-old whose family is relatively new to Quakerism gave a wonderful explanation of how Quakers try to listen to that of God in every person and find a solution that everyone can be happy with, rather than voting, which might leave the losers unhappy.

Eventually we made vegetable soup. Several children, in their excitement over being given knives, chopped the carrots before they were peeled. Others complained that they needed more space on the cutting boards. The kindergartner with the potato struggled with the peeler, so the potato went in last, leaving us a few minutes before the soup was actually edible. We sat down in a circle again to see if we could fit in any of the official lesson.

We never did get to use the papers with the cookies printed on them, but the children themselves brought up the cruelty of large slaughterhouses, the destruction of the rainforest in order to produce hamburgers, and the evil (and deliciousness) of fast food.

Somehow the lesson, like the soup in the book and in our kitchen, turned out all right. Even more miraculously, the children mostly cleaned their bowls of the samples they were given, broccoli and all. The rest was saved for the homeless.

Eileen Flanagan

Eileen Flanagan is a member of Chestnut Hill Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa. This piece is excerpted from her blog,