In a scene out of a culinary daydream, a small but engaged group of Columbians gathered around a table of produce Friday evening outside Broadway Christian Church, shouting out their favorite recipes and recounting cooking tips passed down through their families.
After speaking up a couple of times, one participant was asked where she learned the recipes.
“My mom,” she said, laughing jovially.
The group of about 20 people was celebrating the opening of “Growing Together,” a weeklong event series organized by Refugee Services, a resettlement agency of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri.
The series features immigrant and refugee stories as told through cultural cuisine. It’s one of the hundreds of events happening across the U.S. as part of “Welcoming Week,” a national initiative meant to showcase and nurture inclusive spaces and communities.
As part of the first event, Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture opportunity gardens manager Saxon Brown brought an array of produce that is often found in the gardens of immigrant or refugee gardeners who work with CCUA.
CCUA’s opportunity gardens program helps low-income people start and sustain home gardens. Brown said one-third of participants in the program are immigrants or refugees, who often want to grow food from their home countries in their new Missouri gardens.
“So often in our lives, some of the first ways that we experience … other cultures (is) through food,” Brown said. “It’s a way that people can really share culture and heart and enjoy time with each other.”
As Brown showed off each piece of produce — from pumpkin leaf to bitter melon — group members shared some of their favorite cooking methods and memories associated with the foods. Several participants passed around the veggies, feeling the different textures or trying to describe the foods’ unique smells.
“People wouldn’t think you could eat this,” said attendee Monica Lee, holding a couple of slightly prickly pumpkin leaves. “But you can.”
Valérie Berta, “Growing Together” organizer and community engagement coordinator at Catholic Charities, said the goal of the event series is to help create and sustain welcoming communities. She said the events are open to everyone and hopes people who are curious about learning more about the immigrant and refugee experience will come.
“It’s important everywhere, and it’s important here because we are home to a lot of different populations,” Berta said, speaking of Columbia’s immigrant and refugee populations as well as international students attending MU. “In the end, I think we’re all stronger when we are welcoming.”
Second Ward Columbia City Council Member Andrea Waner read a proclamation from Mayor Brian Treece’s office at the beginning of the event that echoed Berta’s sentiment, highlighting the importance of diversity and acceptance in Columbia and calling on the community to “be welcoming places where everyone feels they belong.”
Waner later added, “Without these robust and diverse members of our community, we don’t have the Columbia that we know and love.”
Several more outdoor events are scheduled in Columbia over the next week, including a garden tour by a Syrian refugee family and a community potluck, as well as an online cooking demo by a local chef. All in-person events will be held at Broadway Christian Church, near the refugee services community garden plot. More information about the dates and times of those events is available at the Welcoming America website.