Intercultural contacts embody theology
By Mary Stamp
Ross Carper's half-time jobs as director of Feast World Kitchen and as director of missional engagement at First Presbyterian Church intersected with plans for Feast to cater the church's 32nd annual Jubilee Marketplace.
However, those plans changed as organizations began canceling events with the local surge in COVID cases in August.
With pandemic protocols in mind, it was going to be held for one day, in person, outdoors on Sept. 5—instead of two days inside in November.
Now organizers ask people to shop fair trade vendors online throughout the fall for back-to-school to holiday gift shopping. Links to fair trade vendors are posted at spokanefpc.org/jubilee-international-marketplace.
For five years, Ross has helped the church plan the Jubilee Marketplace.
"It's important for people to make purchases from fair trade vendors, because they have been hit by a lack of fair trade festivals," he said. "Buying fair trade goods supports communities that are affected by the pandemic, as well as being impacted by ongoing poverty and oppression.
"Our commitment to and celebration of fair trade is a big part of who we are as a church, because it supports people who make a livelihood creating beautiful handicrafts," he added.
Ross' work with Feast World Kitchen also expresses his commitment to work for justice across cultures with refugees and immigrants.
When in 2016, his full-time work at the church dropped to half time, he started a food truck business, Compass Breakfast Wagon, which brought together his neighbors on the lower South Hill.
As he did that, and connected with former refugees, many approached him about how to start a food truck or find a commercial kitchen.
In 2019, the restaurant across the street from First Presbyterian—an Arctic Circle from the 1960s to 2009 and then a sushi restaurant—was for sale. First Presbyterian owns other nearby buildings—rented by Stepping Stones, a COP Shop and an architecture firm. An elder, who is a real estate agent, helped the church buy the restaurant.
Ross conversed with former refugees and Daniel Todd, who ran Inland Curry and wanted to have a commercial kitchen that empowers international cooks.
"We decided to start Feast World Kitchen to offer international dishes with a series of chefs cooking their cuisine and playing their music to share their cultures," said Ross, who sold the food truck.
Now Feast World Kitchen is an independent nonprofit renting the space from First Presbyterian at below market value.
Chefs not only share their food and culture, but also learn small business skills.
The first year, Feast World Kitchen was all volunteers. Now Ross is half-time executive director and former Jordanian asylum seeker Maisa Abudayha, a co-founder, is program director and organizer.
They started with eight chefs, cooking once a month and others cooking one to four times a year.
Some monthly chefs have started their own businesses, applied the skills to other food-related careers because the restaurant business is hard to enter, Ross said. Six have started catering businesses.
Feast World Kitchen also employs refugees as custodians and dishwashers
Now 65 families have shared food through its take-out to-go menu, patio dining and catering. Chefs rent the kitchen for a day to prepare and sell meals.
On Mondays, weekly menus are posted at feastworldkitchen.org. Patrons order meals, which are served Wednesdays through Sundays, so chefs can buy the amount of ingredients they need. Patrons can also walk up to the take out window in the patio and make orders from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. or 4 to 8 p.m.
"It's a way some to make extra money to pay bills," Ross said. "Some learn to start small businesses. Some find it an avenue to jobs. Universities and others reach out to us seeking people with experience cooking for large groups. Those are less stressful careers than the restaurant business—but immigrants often successfully run restaurants.
The chef families are from 35 countries, reflecting the former refugees and immigrants in the community—including Syrian, Iraqi, Sudanese, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Kenyan, Senegalese, Cuban, Venezuelan, Colombian, Mexican, Guatemalan, Bhutanese, Nepalese, Vietnamese, Thai, Hong Kong, Pakistani, Ukrainian, Eastern European and more.
"I learned to be flexible, have grace and love folks who have different experiences than I do," said Ross. "I have learned how beautiful and different each culture is. I have also learned the power of food to bring people together."
Organizers chose the name "Feast" because each culture and religion has such a word for their celebrations.
"In a feast, people come to the table from different backgrounds and experiences. A feast provides a loving space for people to engage with each other around a table," he said.
Volunteers—youth to retirees—help at Feast World Kitchen, getting to know families as they serve at the restaurant or for events.
"Feast embodies anti-racism in action," said Ross. "Some of those who founded Feast look like me, but were concerned about anti-refugee rhetoric, because we knew the positive impact refugees and immigrants have.
"We emphasize relationships, meeting around the table and breaking down barriers as we come to know one another and improve relationships in the city," he said.
"It's fun seeing people of different cultures, especially those who have been isolated, trying to survive in a new place, working together at Feast with people from around the world.
Ross said the values he expresses at Feast World Kitchen and First Presbyterian Church were instilled growing up Catholic in Spokane.
While studying philosophy at Western Washington University, he mentored teens at Blaine High School through Young Life, so he wanted to do missional-service-based youth ministry after graduating and returning to Spokane.
"Having found my spiritual path as a Protestant, I began a youth ministry job at First Presbyterian Church in 2006," he said.
"I'm passionate about practical theology or embodied faith, especially because youth grow in faith as they serve and love their neighbors of different backgrounds," said Ross, who began in high school ministry and did college-age programs, became director of middle school ministry 10 years ago.
He involved youth with former refugees. The college group's Good Neighbor Team worked through World Relief with the first Syrian family resettled in Spokane in 2014.
"It was a profound experience working with a family who had struggled so much," he said.
In 2016, he shifted from youth ministry to be director of service engagement, now "missional" engagement, involving the congregation in service, mission and justice work.
Ross sees service as both a part of and an extension of worship—the lab work, the hands-on work of following Jesus as neighbors with the marginalized, poor and vulnerable.
"We have clear marching orders from Jesus," he said.
In 2018, he and others began a series of monthly Thursday evening justice forums, inviting speakers on social justice issues.
He offered a few on Zoom and hopes to do more when it's safe to gather, because a "big component along with the content is network and relationships," Ross said.
Several sessions have been on racism and anti-racism, including looking at experiences of the Latinx community and refugees in the Inland Northwest, and a session on David Swanson's Rediscipling the White Church.
A spring 2021 session was on "Building the Beloved Community."
Other topics include Christianity and war, and other "sticky topics in society" that have been at the forefront in recent years, Ross said.