Unexpected: CICCU's attempt to feed the five thousand?

Image credit: Tabgha

There’s a story in the gospels that many are probably familiar with, but I’ll recap it just in case. Jesus was teaching a large group of people about God when they noticed that it was already dinnertime and no one had a thing to eat. A young boy was passing with five loaves of bread and two fish, and somehow was persuaded to hand them over to the disciples. You’ll notice that this amount of food still wasn’t enough to give everyone a decent meal, but they needn’t have worried, because Jesus did his stuff and suddenly there was enough for everyone. Imagine the career he would have had as a caterer – he’d probably have lived past 33 too.

I’ve often thought that CICCU have taken this story to heart, following Jesus’ example in recognising that the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach. However, they seem to have fundamentally misinterpreted the message: while Jesus used a few items of food to feed (and we assume convert) five thousand people, CICCU more often than not do the opposite, feeding the five thousand with food for five thousand, but converting only a couple each year.

Let’s be clear: I’m talking about CICCU’s ‘Main Event’ every year. You can sense it approaching when people on Facebook start posting links to websites with enigmatic names and changing their profile pictures. You see people in lectures and on the street all wearing the same hoodies.

For those new to Cambridge or those who were miraculously sheltered in the previous years of their degree, the ‘Main Event’ may not be a concept with which you are familiar. In essence, it’s a series of talks – with an overarching theme - aimed at explaining Christianity (of the specifically evangelical variety, mind), tackling its big problems and central paradoxes and ultimately encouraging conversion. In first year, I struggled through ‘The Search’. Last year I battled my way through ‘No Filter’. Now, in my final year, I’ve spent the week poking my nose in the door of ‘The Unexpected’ (sounds almost like a horror film title, doesn’t it?). And to be perfectly honest with you, I’m sick of them.

This isn’t an article intending to cast aspersion over CICCU as a whole – although if I were going to, I’d have lots to choose from. But, fun as all that would be, I’m not here to talk about the evangelist movement in its entirety. My biggest problem with CICCU (and this is perhaps most especially clear during their ‘Main Event’) is that they waste food in a way which I find utterly shocking and thoughtless.

Every day this week, CICCU has given away a free lunch of a baguette sandwich and a doughnut/cookie to everyone attending their lunchtime talks. In previous years, this has even extended to a free dinner accompanying their evening talks, though I haven’t been able to discover whether that is being offered this term. That’s fair enough, you might say – aren’t they entitled to do this? But having watched this for three years, as well as watching the free doughnuts and smoothies handed out at libraries in exam term, coupled with the Text-A-Toasties, I’ve grown more and more cynical about the idea of giving away food to students. With what aim are they doing it?

Although I’m not a Christian, I’m not anti-religion. Believing so strongly in a higher power is something I have no experience of, and sometimes, I’m envious of the certainty with which it informs the lives of the Christians I know. And for this reason, I’m not willing to make a judgement on anyone deciding to try and convert others. I try to convince people to watch films or read books that I’ve enjoyed, because they’re improved my life, so doesn’t the same go for Christians, just with much higher stakes?

But each time I think about these talks, I can’t help trying to tot up how much is being spent on food. Great St Mary’s is packed with people, and if you’re giving each one of these people a lunch, how much are you investing in it? Moreover, seeing that most of them are already Christian anyway, what is the money being spent on? Inspiring talks are important, but do they merit so much use of resources? When I think about the homelessness we see on display in Cambridge, I can’t help but wonder whether CICCU would do more good in giving out the free lunches to them instead, people who actually need the food (unlike students)? Doughnuts and smoothies in exam term are all very well, but the same money spent on buying them (which is not inconsiderable) could be used for much worthier causes. To be sure, giving food to the homeless is less glamorous, and maybe you wouldn’t be doing so with the aim of getting people to convert to Christianity, but I think you would end up doing far more good.

After their lakeside feast, Jesus makes sure that his disciples gather up the leftovers so that none will go to waste. Even then, Jesus clearly cared about making sure there was no waste. If you’re going to try to feed the five thousand, then feed five thousand people who need the food, who wouldn’t eat otherwise. Don’t waste the loaves and fishes.

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