Shining the Light

USD Theology and Religious Studies Professor Christopher Carter, PhD.


Those who routinely traverse the I-5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco are all-too-familiar with the dreary homogeneity of the route. But for the Rev. Dr. Christopher Carter — an assistant professor of Theology and Religious Studies at USD, as well as a member of the clergy at Westwood United Methodist Church in Los Angeles — the first time he made the drive was quite an eye-opener.

“I’d never been on I-5,” he says. “And driving that path was the first time I’d seen real industrial agriculture.” He shakes his head, remembering. “The smells and the poverty, well, I got shook. It reminded me of when we’d have family reunions in Brookhaven, Mississippi. That’s when my grandfather would tell these stories about working on farms and working on plantations picking cotton. He would talk about how hard that labor was.”

Seeing the farmworkers scattered under the hot sun in the fields alongside the freeway brought all those conversations flooding back. 

“I thought, ‘How is this still happening?’” Carter is crystal clear about the debt owed to his maternal grandfather, Grandpa Robert, who pulled the family out of generational poverty. “That’s where I got the idea to focus my dissertation on food justice and the intersection of racial justice. It was about giving a voice to marginalized farmworkers and how the environmental consequences of how we grow food impacts all of us — but particularly how it impacts poor people and people of color.”

As a boy, Carter lived in Battle Creek, Michigan, then a small town (pop: 30,000). Every summer, the kids in the family would travel to an even tinier town, Three Rivers, Michigan (pop: 3,000), to visit his maternal grandparents.

“I always loved it because they lived in a house that had a huge backyard,” he recalls. “They had a garden that was really more like a homestead — a huge, huge garden where they grew all kinds of stuff — next to an elementary school that we could go play at and a large field that we could play in. There, we were in touch with nature in a way that we weren’t when I was at home with my parents during the school year.” 

Carter has warm memories of those halcyon days.

“Grandpa Robert would talk about how we’re supposed to care for the land and be stewards over the land, so that we could grow our own food,” he recalls. “A Southern Baptist who’s very theologically conservative, he really believes in ecological stewardship, that the Earth is a gift from God that we’re supposed to care for. He impressed that upon us in a very powerful way.”

Cover image of "Soul Food: Race Faith and Food Justice" book coverThat impression has had a profound impact on Carter’s work. His doctoral dissertation, “Eating Oppression: Food, Faith and Liberation” was the foundation for his new book, The Spirit of Soul Food: Race, Faith and Food Justice (University of Illinois Press). In it, he offers a compelling case for the need for Black people, in particular, to practice three eating practices: soulful eating/black veganism, seeking justice for food workers and making a practice of caring for the Earth.

“Christianity, food justice and food sovereignty are intertwined in my family history,” he says in the book’s introduction. “As far as I can remember, I believed there was a moral obligation to provide access to food for all people.” 

For Carter, that duty is deeply rooted in those childhood summers in Three Rivers. “That stayed with me throughout my life. I’ve always had appreciation for nature, in a way that wasn’t typically common among my peers, especially the Black folks who grew up in urban spaces,” he says.

“Grandpa Robert interspersed these stories when I was growing up — and definitely as I’ve gotten older — about his experiences in the South growing up in the era of Jim Crow. The discrimination he experienced from the people he worked with, from the people he worked for, and the ways in which, economically, he was subjected to exploitation because of Jim Crow. Ultimately, that’s why he ended up leaving Mississippi; he and my grandmother moved to Michigan in search of economic opportunities.”

The year was 1962, and the civil rights movement was heating up across the nation. “He was very concerned for his own safety and well-being. This was right before things started getting really ratcheted up with Martin Luther King, Jr., and there was a lot more racial terror happening. So, they moved to Michigan, and like many people in Michigan, he worked in a factory for his daytime job. And in the afternoons and evenings, he was out in the garden.” 

In fact, up until just a few years ago, that was still the family patriarch’s routine, until he started slowing down as an octogenarian. While Grandpa Robert’s wife, Grandma Yvonne, is no longer with us, Carter wants his late grandmother to get credit where it’s due. 

“She had a profound intimacy with God. From her, I learned what it is to really love the church, and what it means to practice Christianity and embody that. She taught me the importance of cultivating a spirituality that wasn’t just a kind of performance. It was really about who you were becoming. For her, it was about reading scripture, reading the Bible, and engaging in practices to become more like Jesus.

“Both of them really modeled this for me. I would come back home after my visit every summer, and after each time, I felt like I was changing.” 

While Carter was the first in his family to attend college, it took some time for him to see that path for himself. Right out of high school, he took a job at a grocery store. It wasn’t until he was 23 years old — at the urging of his wife, Gabrielle, who said he was too smart not to pursue higher education — that he enrolled at Michigan’s Cornerstone University, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration.

“It was the best decision I ever made — to wait to go to college,” he says. “I was a more mature student as an undergrad, and in that space, it allowed me to see myself as smart and take myself out of the environment of where I’d grown up and be in a totally different space, where people didn’t know who I was. I was able to engage with the course materials in ways that I just didn’t try to in high school. I realized that I had a lot to say, and that I had a lot to contribute. That’s when I began to accept a call to ministry.”

Carter laughs, then continues. “I had felt the call for many years, but it was not something I was really looking forward to doing, because I had seen so many clergy in my life have bad marriages and all kinds of stuff that didn’t seem like the kind of life I wanted, which was a really stable family life. But in the end, it was something that I couldn’t not do. It was so steeped in me — that call to serve through the church — so that’s what I did.” 

After graduation, he applied and was accepted to the seminary, subsequently earning a Master of Divinity as well as a Master of Religion degree, going on to earn a doctorate in Religion Ethics and Society, all from the Claremont School of Theology. 

Farmworkers laboring in the fields

Farmworkers laboring in the fields.

“It was in seminary that I began to connect the strands between my faith and how it shaped my environmental worldview,” he explains. “In Michigan, I took nature for granted. It’s so green there, and I lived in a place where there were lots of green spaces. If I wanted to go camping, if I wanted to go hiking, it was easy.”

Not so much in Los Angeles County. “I began to experience environmental suffering and environmental degradation,” Carter says. “I began to think theologically about this issue, which wasn’t my intention. I didn’t think I’d do anything with food, anything with animals.”

Through his journey, Carter’s connection to the natural world and food has been deep-rooted. He notes in the introduction to The Spirit of Soul Food that he came to decide how he should eat “based upon my own particular kind of moral identity and formation. I was curious as I began to learn more about environmental injustice and the relationship that had to racial injustice … I saw these connecting in ways which weren’t initially evident to me.”

And the exploitation of people working in the fields continues to this day. “I’ve gone to those places, and I’ve seen what it looks like. That stuff is hidden, and it’s hidden for a reason. The goal is for us not to see it,” Carter says. “Then we don’t think about how we get our food. I want to bring light to that. I feel like if people know about it, I can make a persuasive argument for them to opt out and move into alternative ways of thinking about how we eat.”

One of the central practices that Carter explores in his book is that of black veganism, which he describes as “the ideal form of soulful eating and the way Black people can decolonize our diets and delink from coloniality.” He says the concept is an “ideal way for Black people to eat in a way that prioritizes justice for and solidarity with Black and other dispossessed communities,” particularly when seen through the lens of the desire not to be complicit in cruelty. 

“My wife is a veterinarian, and one of her former teachers works with cows in Tulare County, which is the mega-dairy capital,” he explains. “So, I have a lot of inside knowledge of how these mega-dairies work — not just the treatment of the animals, but the treatment of the people — and it’s all just immoral. ‘Evil’ is the word I use. We shouldn’t treat anything like this.”

Carter sees his choices and advocacy regarding food as grounded in morality and ethics. 

Recipe card for peach crumble.“I didn’t grow up wanting to be vegan or vegetarian. It was seeing this for myself and realizing I didn’t want to be complicit in suffering. I can’t be complicit in the way in which the system oppresses people, oppresses animals, oppresses nature. Since I have the ability to opt out — not everybody does — I should do it. And I should work toward not only reforming the system but creating opportunities for other people to be able to opt out.”

In many ways, his life’s work as a scholar, social ethicist and practical theologian has roots in the Mississippi summers of his childhood. 

“When the conversation turned to comparing the various foods against one another, it tended to flow from recipes and ingredients to stories about how these recipes were passed down from our elders,” Carter says in his book’s introduction. 

“Eventually, someone would talk about how these foods helped our ancestors during their enslavement and Jim and Jane Crow. These foods contained painful, powerful and empowering memories of Black suffering and self-determination. The family elders would explain that we eat chitlins because we were given the scraps of domestic animals and we needed a way to find a way to make all the parts palatable.”

He notes that Black people were “forced to make the best out of the worst, and this improvisation ability is how we survived,” and says that he’s proud to “have come from people whose culinary habits reflect our ability to ‘make a way out of no way.’” 

It all comes back to morality, in Carter’s view. “Race and food justice is intimately connected. It’s a theological problem, with food as an entry point. Everyone eats. We all have a stake in this.”

When it comes to potential solutions, Carter sees churches serving as food hubs as one viable option for making change. 

“In Michigan, my church has enough land to have a farm and to practice food justice as a form of ministry. If we can address the structural barriers and empower farmers, we can create local food economies,” he says. “From a theological perspective, this is the way we practice being the body of Christ, by ingesting something that reminds us of our connection with God.”

Carter says that suburban or rural churches with land should think about how they might use it to grow food to feed their communities. “How might churches partner with local farmers to host markets where people in the community can buy direct from the farmer to get the freshest food at a lower cost?” 

USD Professor Christopher Carter's son, Isaiah, loves to help out in the kitchen.

Professor Christopher Carter’s son, Isaiah, loves to help out in the kitchen.

On a personal level, he’s been contributing his cooking to members of the churches he’s been affiliated with for quite some time. “When I was the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church of Compton from 2010 to 2012, I’d regularly bring a vegan dish to share,” he recalls. “I’d cook traditional soul food dishes like mustard greens, red beans and rice and a peach crisp. The most requested item was always the citrus raisin collard greens, which was the first vegan item I ever cooked for them, so I think it held a special place in their hearts. It’s really good.”

Not that the folks didn’t take some convincing at first. “People were initially hesitant to eat the greens, because they’re used to eating them with some type of pork, but when they finally ate them, they loved them,” Carter says. “At first, they were eating them because I was the pastor and they wanted to be nice, so the fact that they enjoyed them took them by surprise.”

He saw this as a pivotal moment because commenting on the vegan collard greens gave them permission to talk about why they ate what they ate without feeling guilt. “I wasn’t shaming them, and I could share details about my diet and explain the religious significance of my veganism.”

In his household, Carter’s proud that he’s the primary person at the stove. “So many of us have negative feelings around cooking,” he notes, pointing out that gender stereotyping and the idea of cooking as a chore is pervasive in our society. But he says, “If you can read, you can cook, as long as you’re patient with yourself.”

And on a personal level? “I’ve gotten to be a pretty good cook,” he says, beaming. When asked what challenges he faces regarding cooking for, and with, his 3-year-old son,
Isaiah, the answer is quick: “I tend to pray a lot.”

But on the more serious side, Carter says it’s important to encourage kids to eat a variety of things, so they develop a well-rounded food identity. “Isaiah loves to eat all kinds
of foods, and it makes dining out or cooking at home much easier. Don’t get me wrong, he has his favorites, but I try to only cook them once or twice a week.”

Speaking of which, what’s on the menu for tonight’s dinner for himself, wife Gabrielle and Isaiah?

“Faro grain rice with vegan mozzarella, roasted zucchini, tomatoes tossed in olive oil and balsamic, topped with toasted almonds.”

In a word? Yum.Julene Snyder

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *