FOODSCAPES: GASTRONOMY, THEOLOGIES, AND SPIRITUALITIES, Asian Feminist Theological Orientation

Ecclesia of Women in Asia’s 8th Biennial Conference
Venue: Vietnam
Date: January 18-21, 2018

Ecclesia of Women in Asia is a forum of Asian Catholic women theologians and women doing theology in Asia. Our name “Ecclesia of Women in Asia” expresses the desire of women to enter the mainstream Church as fully responsible ecclesial participants and partners in the life of the Church. EWA seeks to bring to consciousness that women are Church and always have been Church. The sub-theme of the first conference, “Voices of the Silenced” is open-ended. It enables women theologians to re-name Asian women’s spiritual powers, to redefine our collective struggle of doing theology, and reconstruct the distinctive nature of our emancipatory theological reflection.

EWA 8 Conference was held at the Catholic Pastoral Center, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on January 18-21, 2018. The theme of the conference was Foodscapes: Gastronomy, Theologies and Spiritualities, Catholic Asian Feminist Theological Orientation. A foodscape connotes “plate-full” of issues and spectrum connected to food, vis-à-vis health, environment and ecology, cultures, politics, economics, spirituality, and theology.

Food discourse in the context of Asian women’s issues and concerns needs an enlightened response because food is part of our culinary culture and community life.

Given the stereotype of women as “bearers” or “contributors” of culture, it is not surprising that women are at the heart and center of the discourse surrounding food, health and the environment. Women are traditionally regarded as “the mother-nurturer,” and therefore often regarded as “cooks” and “helpers” In many Asian cultures, still retain the “caste at the table”, where women are last in the list who “must” eat the meal. On the one hand, food is common to feasting or celebrations, how simple this may be. Food is also medicinal, which traditionally is incorporated in dishes if not, are made into medicines, or plainly taken raw. Because food plays a pivotal role in the caring identity of women, food as medicine reinforces the belief that women are healers.

A dialogue with Pope Francis Laudato Si is an opportunity for a greater recognition of women’s role in the Church and her community. Food in particular as well as other issues surrounding it is an integral part of humanity and our reality, and that is timely that Catholic Asian women respond to the “signs of the times”.

Context of the theme: abundance in some places of the world and hunger in others; politics of food (based on caste, religion), climate change; in the context of global capitalism.

Related Spirituality and Theological themes: Laudato Si, ecofeminism, eucharist, fasting, vegetarianism, relationship with creation, vocation of a business leader, fair trade.

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January 18, Thursday

For many participants, the 8th EWA conference started with a delicious taste of Vietnamese breakfast at the canteen of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center, the venue of the meeting. Food served were Vietnamese native coffee, tea, noodles, fruits, eggs, milk, yogurt and many more food galore till the end of the day!

At the 3rd floor conference room, the first day started promptly with a liturgy with the theme, “Take and Eat.” Different ingredients from the places we came from were offered. Andrea Si gave a reflection on the readings taken from Lamentations and Matthew. Like Jesus in the Gospel, we are women called to enflesh the Word of God in the world”.

Jeane Peracullo warmly welcomed everyone, the members and the first timers! Recognition and gratitude were expressed to the Vietnamese sisters who have worked hard to prepare and make this conference venue possible, that all are warmly welcomed and to the Coordinating Team.

To know everyone in the circle, everyone was requested to introduce herself to the group. There were 27 participants from 7 Asian countries. Appreciation and thanks to Siphim Xavier for the nicely embroidered conference bag and kit.

Jeane also presented through meaningful pictures the rich story of EWA through the years, and it evoked powerful moments and memories of persons who helped in its birthing and who nurtured this organization to grow to its adulthood.

Jeane introduced Sharon Bong as the Keynote speaker to the group and her topic was “You Are What You Eat: Ethics of Eating Meat and queer Ecofeminism.” She raised important issues gleaned from Laudato Si, Vegan Feminism and Queer Ecofeminism.

She lauded Laudato Si for its stress on the earth as our common home for all not only humans but animals and plants as well, the call to ecological conversion towards prophetic witnessing like living simply. Still, Laudato Si has issues concerning anthropocentrism, a hierarchical attitude, an obstacle to true conversion, and the challenge of responsible stewardship. She also surfaced Carol J. Adams’ vegan feminism, as an alternative/ intervention that critiques and can offer a solution. And thirdly, taking on the Feminist ethics of care in relation to food, in processes and relationships, the affinity of women with the environment in contrast to the views on sexual politics of meat, the masculinity of meat eating and the like. A view on Queer ecofeminism that crosses boundaries, breaks the binary concepts of human and non-human, that espouses equality and compassion, not aggression for all are one. There is the call to redefine ‘the human’ in the 21st century.

In the open forum, some points were raised like the idea that religion like Christianity had a role in the meat eating practices of people like in India, meat eating as associated with masculinity, how is being vegan an alternative, living life like eating in moderation and balance food, stressing more the ethics of nurture and care, seeing all as creatures of God, the interrelatedness of all beings a spirituality perspective long lived by indigenous peoples and the urgent call of sustainability and compassionate living in relation to Mother Earth.

Before the group broke for lunch, we had group picture taking outside.

In the afternoon at 2 pm we came back to listen and to dialogue with local women theologians Mary Tran and Daniela Nguyen. Their presentations gave us a glimpse of the situation of Vietnamese women past and present, how religion and colonialism had an interplay to where they are.

Mary Tran gave us a glimpse of the qualities of the Blessed Mary in the Vietnamese devotion and the lessons learned from this while Daniella discussed the images of the Vietnamese woman in the confusion culture especially in the systematic use of language that oppress and reinforce the discrimantory status of the Vietnamese woman in society. Thus the challenge to deconstruct the sexist language, and change the way language is used in daily life. A re-reading of Mary in the Magnificat can be helpful in the liberation of the divinization of Mary in the celebration of mary’s feasts and devotion.

The creative use of art in doing theology were done by Francoise Bosteel’s “Let the Dolls Speak” and Sr. Florence’s painting of the spirituality of food in the eyes of children. Francoise contextual retelling of the boy who offered bread to feed the multitude and the India’s rural poor women who depict generosity in time of need.

Another highlight n the afternoon was the launching of the TWIN books of EWA 6 and 7 and a historic ebook publication at Amazon, lessons learned here: an affirmation that indeed EWA provides opportunity for Asian women to write and publish, and that Asian women theologians are capable of birthing writing and editing. A cocktail of food and wine followed to celebrate this feat!

Some organizational matters for the selection of the next EWA coordinator and Coordinating Team were discussed on the floor before supper.

It was truly a fruitful and energizing first day!

January 19, Friday

While continuing to enjoy the memorable hospitality of Vietnamese sisters, 19th January 2018 morning of EWA 8th started with raising our hearts to the creator led by Florence Bautista at 8:00 am followed by the recap of the first day by Jeane. The first session of the day was started at 8:40 am and the panel speakers were introduced and welcomed by Julia Ong. The theme of the first panel was: “Biblical Reflections on Food and Asian Women.” The first presentation was by Bincy Mathew who spoke about how the biblical text should be read to bring the liberating thrust in them three different biblical passages. The second speaker was Kristine Meneses, who spoke about the reality of hunger in the Philippines connecting to the book of Lamentations. She related experiencing hunger to biblical daqar (“piering, slow death”). According to Kristine, God’s silence is provoking us to answer the question: where are you? The third speaker was Rasika, who spoke about a theological reading of the Samaritan woman’s meeting with Jesus in light of the struggle of the women especially the war-widows in Sri Lanka as the struggle for full humanity in the post war context. She highlights the war widows’ resistance to the existing cultural and religious food practices in Sri Lanka. The forum was opened for discussions and comments for further reflections on these subjects.

Some of the highlights of the open forum include how women’s role in cooking and food preparation also need to be appreciating without reducing women to these roles. Rather than glorifying women cooking, boys and men should also be trained in these roles. Also, rather than put the burden on women in the context of poverty, a collective and personal response is needed from everyone in society. The witness and struggles of war widows give us much insight and hope. Seeing women come together, even despite differences in caste, attest to women’s potential. There is no binary between food preparation and love. Rather, the meaning of food as love and life is heightened. All three presentations convey how the reign of God is allowed to breakthrough.

After the tea break the members gathered for the second session at 10:30 am. The panel speakers were welcomed and introduced by Rasika Pieris. The theme of the panel discussion was “Subaltern Women and Food: Subversion and Resistence.” Shalini Mulackal presented the topic “Dalit Women and Food scape: A Subaltern Feminist perspective.” After showing the painful situation of Dalit women in India, she highlighted that in the face of deprivation, and exploitation, Dalit women need to have a spiritualty of protest, resistance and subversion. The second speaker Cyrilla presented her views on, “Food, Memory, hunger: Women and Eucharist” envisioning the interconnectedness envisaged in the Indian Philosophy and highlighted the secularity of the sacred and sacredness of the secularity.

During the open forum, the observation that compartmentalization seems to be more present among Christians rather than Hindus is highlighted. And yet, ironically, everything is connected in the Hindu system expect the Dalits. Indian socio-cultural realities such as the caste system, the double pollution of Dalit women, and women’s fasting are also expounded on. Women’s exercise of their agency amidst this socio-cultural milieu is expressed through protest but when there is protest, there is conflict. The traditional Church may not appreciate it but there are more and more women coming to terms with this spirituality. After an enriching discussions on these pertinent issues the session broke for lunch and rest.

After the business meeting and the election of the Core Team, the members gathered for video conferencing at 10:00 PM. The session was moderated by Kochurani Abraham. University in the USA and Africa joined the video conferencing. The session consisted of two speakers, Rachel Joyce Marie O. Sanchez and Stephanie Ann Puen. Rachel Joyce discussed the local Filipino myth of a goddess that provided a resource for women to relate to Christ as the Rice of life and the breast feeding Christ, while Stephannie brought in Fairtrade as a dialogue and action partner for catholic social thought in creating and practicing more just and inclusive labor that is sensitive to women’s experiences and needs. After having a very lively and enriching discussions with the friends on the board and abroad the group dispersed for a peaceful night carrying some thorny questions on foodscapes in their hearts and minds.

January 20, Saturday

The third day of the conference yielded though-provoking discussions. A panel entitled “Theological Reflections on Laudato Si‘” facilitated by Kristine Meneses became a venue to discuss and critique the pope’s document regarding the environment in the context of food security, animal welfare and ecofeminism. Mary Yuen, in her presentattion entitled, “Food Security and Food Waste: Reflection from Laudato Si and Ecofeminist Perspective” brought out the issue of hunger and poverty in Hongkong despite the affluence others enjoy. She identified three important points from Laudato Si — the human roots of the environmental crisis, God’s image and the value of each creature, and integral ecology and places these in dialogue with an ecofeminist perspective. She ends with concrete examples of pastoral responses that show how human beings can carry our the changes called for by the document and ecofeminism. Heejung Adele Cho presented a paper entitled “Animals as Fellow Creatures of God: Welfare of Farmed Animals Based on Laudato Si,” which argued that consuming animal products should be an ethical choice that one makes consciously based on a careful examination of available data. To encourage people to make such an ethical choice, people should have a structure that they can follow from such discernment.

The next panel entitled “Women, Food, and Justice” was facilitated by Metti Amirtham. Jeane Peracullo spoke on “Animal Liberation and Rights: Should We Be Vegetarians?” from a philosophical perspective that builds on what we can know about the experience of pain. In her presentation, she exposed the limitations of ethical absolutism and considered contextual and ethical vegetarianism. The next speaker was Kochurani Abraham who presented a paper on “Women in Labour: Food Security to Birthing Their Full Humanity.” Kochurani presented the Kudumbasree of Kerala as a model of women moving from being deprived to being agents. Despite the equality between men and women articulated in biblical texts like Gen. 1:27, women’s lived experiences continue to negate this articulation. She therefore argued for a shift from the text to the texture of women’s lives where there divine irrupts wherever life is affirmed. Using this hermenetic, Kochurani interpreted the Kudumbasree as a Magnificat.

January 21, Sunday

The participants of EWA culminated the conference with a back-to-back celebration of the Holy Eucharist and closing prayer ritual with the them “Taste and See.” The conference was evaluated by all the participants by answering the following questions posed by Julia Ong:

  • Which part of EWA 8 has made an impact on you?
  • What suggestions do you have for EWA 9?
  • What hopes are you taking away with you to your ministry from this EWA?

The conference ended with a hopeful note. We are excited about the possibility that EWA 9 will be held in Malaysia in 2020!

We thank Sr. Genny Dumay, RGS, Bincy Matthew, Stephanie Puen and Rachel Sanchez for providing the summaries used on this page. Abstracts from various presentors were also used. Hyperlinks are currently being added to the presentation titles as summaries of these become available online.