Vanderslice, a baker and writer, is a first-year student in the master of theological studies (M.T.S.) program. The M.T.S. degree is tailored to fit the needs of students who would like to pursue doctoral studies or seek careers in teaching or research. She is interested in exploring the theological and communal importance of eating together and the role food plays in our social interactions.
“Jesus tells the church to eat bread together,” she says. “I was curious why bread ... and for me, the process of baking bread encapsulates the story of death and resurrection. There are so many parallels in bread that mirror the story of Christ giving up his life for others.”
Vanderslice, 26, has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Wheaton College in Illinois and a master’s degree in liberal arts in gastronomy from Boston University.
She worked as a baker and pastry chef in restaurants and bakeries for several years. As she kneaded the bread, one question kept arising: “How does my love for food influence the way I read Scripture?”
Vanderslice chose Duke Divinity School to search for the answers because of Norman Wirzba, a professor of theology, ecology, and agrarian studies, after reading his book, “Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating.”
“It’s one of the first books I came across that explored these connections I made on my own,” she says. “His book was really influential. I came here to work with him.”
She’s writing her own book about dinner churches, places that hold their worship services around a meal. She travelled to 10 churches ranging in denominations, locations, and church sizes, including some as few as seven people and as many as 200.
One of the smallest was a Disciples of Christ church in Madisonville, Ky., Vanderslice described the Potluck Church, which met in the basement of another church: “Everyone brings a dish. Everyone contributes to the worship we share around the table. They go through Scripture reading, there’s a discussion around the reading. The minister acts more like a facilitator of dialogue. They share communion and pray.”
Community Dinners, a group of Christ followers, in Seattle, Wash., prepares a dinner each week in and invites people from various neighborhoods. “They believe Jesus’ main mission was to provide for the needs of the most vulnerable,” Vanderslice says. “About 80 percent of people who attend suffer from housing insecurity and food insecurity. A pastoral team cooks together to keep the program running.”
Vanderslice has found the faculty and students at Duke Divinity School helpful as she does her research and completes the writing on her book. “They come from vastly different experiences. Now, I can better understand why people who disagree come to the understandings they do, and why people read the Bible so differently. It’s helpful to have professors who are passionate about their academic fields and truly love God and faith. They want to see us grow as future minsters, not just as academics,” she says.
“It’s the ideal place for a student’s assumptions to be challenged and fostered,” she says. Like bread, faith needs to be pushed, stretched, and grown. “Tension is necessary for bread to grow and flourish. It’s a beautiful metaphor for a community to exist together.”