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Food for Thought rebrands, brings 'stories to the table'

Food for Thought rebrands, brings 'stories to the table'

Fresh Expressions

Rob Tucker comes by his nontraditional approach to spiritual practice, honestly.

“I grew up in Brooksville—a rural town—and in ninth grade, I had a green Mohawk, a lip ring and nose ring, so I stuck out like a sore thumb,” says Tucker, an associate pastor at Suntree United Methodist Church in Melbourne. “I didn’t have the best image of Christianity back then.”

Food for Thought participants hold up self-congratulatory signs after completing the Escape Room challenge.
Food for Thought was recently hosted by Escape Room Entertainment in Melbourne. The team, with Associate Pastor Rob Tucker, third from left, successfully worked together to conquer the "Zombie Apocalypse." Discussion and food followed.  

Tucker had taught himself to play drums and guitar, and he and his friends began playing in the basement of a local church. “That was the connection point for me,” he said. “It wasn’t the idea of God, but of serving people and doing it through art. Who would’ve thought this grungy kid would feel called to the ministry? Since then, I’ve always looked for pathways to people who might be alienated from God.”

Suntree is the first appointment for Tucker, 29, since his graduation from Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, in 2015. His wife, Molly, also a musician, works at the church as contemporary worship leader. He found the suburban retirement area offered no place for young adults in their 20s and 30s to form a community, so he looked for a “third place” to meet between home and work.

“People were in silos trying to do life by themselves or with their own families,” Tucker said. “I needed a connection point, too. I felt lonely. I’m an extrovert, and when I started, Molly was still going to school at Duke, where we met.”

Intrigued by the Fresh Expressions movement, Tucker started “Fire Stories,” meeting once a month around a campfire on the Suntree lawn.

“The church I went to as a kid was Southern Baptist, so I really had to deconstruct, and then reconstruct, my faith, to get beyond an idea of God that punishes to one that is much more grace-filled and personal,” Tucker said. “All of us are made in the image of God, and I wanted to explore what that looks like; that’s why I believe in Fresh Expressions. Through freedom, creativity and innovation, people come to find out more about God than through a regimented approach.”

In keeping with his commitment to widening the circle of fellowship, “my rule was people had to invite someone not connected to the church, to bring in someone who maybe doesn’t have community, regardless of religion,” he said. Tucker gave everyone a role: Someone brought firewood or s’mores or tiki torches, “because it’s always that worry when you start new things. You know, ‘am I going to be the only one who shows up?’”

The premise was that “we are shaped by stories; they make us cry or laugh. In the internet age, it’s hard to get someone to listen to our stories,” Tucker said. “I would give them a place to start, like, ‘what are you on fire for in life?’ and people would say, ‘I have a story to tell.’ They would bring guitars or write a poem or do comedy to deepen communion with each other. It was a safe place for everyone, and we celebrated every story.”

The hot, muggy Florida weather made meeting outdoors impractical, so they began meeting at local restaurants and pubs and “had to rebrand,” Tucker joked. The gathering was renamed “Food for Thought” and attracts from 12 to 30 participants on any given month.

Group making homemade sushi
Kimberly and Spence Wise teach some of the Food for Thought participants how to make sushi. Held at the Tuckers' home, the group also viewed a documentary about a master sushi chef.

“We listen and make sure we go where God is calling us,” he said. “Restaurant owners who’ve heard about us invite us to meet at their place, and people see us and ask who we are. It’s great for outreach.”

Tucker says he was “very intentional” in having people work with him on creating the kind of group they wanted. “I wasn’t trying to convert them to my way of thinking, and I didn’t want it to be another thing on their schedule, another thing to accomplish,” he said. “They aren’t intimidated by me because I’m their age. There are times I don’t come. I want them to take a leadership role.”

The group “brings stories to the table” and sometimes plays board games. They’ve held a Kentucky Derby-themed party—Tucker’s wife is from Louisville—where they discussed “the race of life.”

“It’s started to form us as a community of young adults, whether curious or wandering, engaged in spiritual conversation,” Tucker said. “The joy of it is for them to see how their stories are connected and that God is deeply interested in their story as well.”

For participant Will Kendust, Food for Thought “has been a great, non-threatening space to come together with like-minded people in a similar age range. There was never a huge agenda, so I didn’t feel intimidated, and the program allowed me to invite some of my friends who don’t normally go to church,” he said.

Tucker, who loves the “creative liberties” of Fresh Expressions, says one event he’s most proud of is a sushi party he and Molly hosted at their home. Two members led a lesson in sushi-making; afterward, they all watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about master sushi chef Jiro Ono.

UMC leader shares religious testimony in fellowship over pizza
Food for Thought member Molly Shoulta Tucker (Rev. Rob Tucker's wife) shares some reflections about a story that was read aloud at Pizza Gallery and Grill.

“From that, we explored the idea of cultivating a craft—in this case, of discipleship, and bringing others along with us on that journey,” he said. “We as Christians should throw more parties, learn to laugh with each other and at ourselves. We should have a disciplined spiritual life, but maybe not take ourselves so seriously. God has gifted us with different styles, and we are learning to see God in each other.”

Krista Richard, a member of Suntree UMC, says she likes the more intimate, relaxed Food for Thought gatherings. “I’m in my own age group and talking about faith as it relates to me more personally,” she said. “We gather to discuss spiritual topics in the community over a slice of pizza or a burger. I’ve not only found an amazing church, but with Food for Thought, I’ve gained family.”

From Food for Thought, new groups have grown: a smaller “life group” that meets more often—for deeper discussions—and a group called “Pints and Parables” that’s open to people of all ages.

“Parables are meant to confront us. They have hidden truths for our lives,” Tucker said. “I invite people to read them out loud, have a pint, then ask questions—what truth did you find?

“I have three rules: There are no right or wrong answers, listen as much as you speak and listen with an open mind.” It always ends with an Irish blessing.

Tucker says he finds it especially rewarding to see new, unexpected friendships form in the groups and to know everyone feels welcome.

“We’re still figuring out what FE (Fresh Expressions) is, and it’s been fun for me as a young pastor, very inspirational and life-giving, to discover,” he said.

“Do I want people to know the freedom and faith found in Jesus? Yes. But I just want them to find where God is in their story. I want people to feel valued whether they’re Christian or not, going to church on Sunday or not—that’s grace. I’ve seen doubting people come around to saying, ‘maybe there is a God who loves me for who I am.’ That’s a really neat part of the experience.”

--Eileen Spiegler is a freelance writer based in Fort Lauderdale.

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