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Chloe GuntherJune 10, 2022
A colorful array of fresh fruits and vegetables on a platter.(Unsplash/Anna Pelzer)

I remember the feeling of my bare feet padding across our old kitchen tiles, the feeling of stretching on my tiptoes to look over the counter. I was probably about 8 years old, and my next door neighbor and I had just come in from playing in the backyard. We wanted a snack. My mom, who had been cleaning up the kitchen, pulled out a pint of summer blueberries.

We started picking at them hesitantly, actually wanting the popsicles we knew to be in the freezer. That's when my mom gestured to the berries and said, “These prevent cancer.”

I looked up at her as she continued putting away dishes, her short, thin hair stopping just at the base of her neck. Knowing her own story as a survivor and feeling the weight of her credibility, my neighbor and I began snacking with a newfound determination, like each blueberry was one step closer to avoiding a devastating diagnosis.

This was just one moment of many that helped me to see that what we eat, that every bite of food we choose to put in our bodies, matters. It matters where that food comes from, how it is produced and its lasting impacts on our health and happiness. This is why, eventually, I became a vegetarian. And it is why I am now thinking about becoming a vegan.

To be clear: I am not writing to convince you to stop enjoying ice cream or pizza. Some of my favorite memories involve baseball and Ben & Jerry’s with my dad. But a recent onslaught of “why’s” about my vegetarianism from family and friends has forced me to take a more introspective look at my intentions for eating the way I do. In this discernment, I saw God staring back at me.

In my experience the question, “What made you decide to go vegetarian?” is often accompanied with a squint or furrowed brow expressing concern about whether or not I am going to place judgment as they finish their cheeseburger. To be completely honest, my answer changes depending on who is asking. Usually a measly reply of “Oh, um, just like for the animals and stuff,” makes its way out of my mouth as I silently beg to move on from the subject.But if I am being completely honest, I choose not to eat animals because that is how I know to best take care of myself, others and the earth. It is how I feel close to God.

It matters where our food comes from.

While growing up in Akron, Ohio, I was notorious for bringing home animals. There was Shaggy, a scrappy little terrier who I coaxed into following me, and Benny, a grey striped kitten who lived in our garage for a week or two. I have held hatchlings swaddled in blankets after they fell out of their nests. On multiple occasions, I have forced my mom to pull the car over to make sure a stray dog was okay (and taken them to the local rescue if not), and I have made many phone calls to animal protective groups at the first suspicion of neglect.

All the while, I would rejoice if we pulled into the McDonald’s drive-thru, eagerly awaiting the toy that accompanied my chicken-nugget-filled Happy Meal, never noticing the hypocrisy in or the correlation between my love for creation and the foods I chose to eat.

That was until one evening, when I was 5 or 6 years old, I learned that people eat lamb.

I cried into my mom’s shoulder when the news broke. Maybe it was because my favorite stuffed animal was a pink lamb, maybe it was because the meat had never been a part of my family’s rotation of dinners or maybe it was because on Sunday our congregation would join together and sing, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”

I was confused, grappling with how at Mass the lamb was understood as a gentle creature representing Christ, sacrifice and innocence, but in other settings the animal became our prey, born to be killed before it reaches a year old. I remember questioning why we thought our lives were that superior. Although it would take a few years to completely remove meat from my diet, this was the first moment I decided I did not want to perpetuate that cruelty.

It took a lot of trial and error for 11-year-old me. I would have a few meat-free weeks, feel confident about my path forward, then remember how much I loved Applebee’s boneless chicken wings. The cycle continued until my mom suggested I remove one type of meat at a time. I have been fully vegetarian for 9 years now, and what started as an outcry for animal rights has developed into a more profound sense of identity and connection with my Catholic faith.

This was the first moment I decided I did not want to perpetuate that cruelty.

While taking my first college-level feminist theology class in the fall of 2020, I learned to embrace the female Christian experience. I found it interesting that I had to learn how to articulate something I have lived my whole life. But it was a concept I had never dissected before. In the class, we studied Women, Earth, and Creator Spiritby Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., in which she advocates for a model of kinship with the earth, a relationship that sees humanity working symbiotically and in tandem with creation rather than as superior beings that use the earth’s resources purely for our benefit.

Johnson also analyzes how throughout history women have been linked to creation by way of the fall of Eve. Therefore, the degradation of the environment and creation has often meant the degradation of women as well.

The sense of validation, clarity and consolation I felt by studying Johnson’s theology brought tears to my eyes. I suddenly gained the vocabulary to explain why abstaining from meat went beyond my sensitivity to animals. While minimizing the pain and suffering of animals continues to be a priority, cooking and eating plant-based meals has for me meant encountering and rejoicing with God in a more intimate way, and it has served as a means of understanding women through the beauty of creation, not as scapegoats for original sin.

Moving to Seattle for college has meant learning how to cook more meals on my own and to properly sustain myself on a plant-based diet (with a college student budget). It was an adjustment. I had to be strategic about fruit at the farmer’s market and creative with my frozen or canned vegetables.

All of this led me to a deeper connection with the earth, as I realized that God has truly put everything I need in the soil before me. Walnuts have been shown to improve cognitive functioning. Like my mom told me so many years ago, blueberries are full of antioxidants that help neutralize some of the free radicals that can damage our DNA and lead to cancer. Even sweet potatoes, which contain high amounts of Vitamin A, Vitamin C and Vitamin E, can help improve our hair and skin. There are thousands of benefits we can enjoy from the plants God has provided.

In the last couple of years, plant-based living has quickly turned into one of my favorite means of cura personalis, or care of the whole person, towards myself and others. But a closer examination of the effects of climate change has taught me its importance in caring for a sustainable future as well.

Pope Francis’ encyclical about creation, “Laudato Si’,” provides the most compelling encouragement for Catholics to adopt a more plant based approach to life.

Pope Francis’ encyclical about creation, “Laudato Si’,” provides the most compelling encouragement for Catholics to adopt a more plant based approach to life. He states, “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.” (no. 217) In an average American diet, beef consumption creates about 1,984 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent annually. Replacing beef with plants would bring that figure down by 96 percent. God’s handiwork has provided the resources to keep humans happy and healthy in a way that works symbiotically with the earth.

Nevertheless, I understand that in a world where it is cheaper and more satisfying to put a couple of dollars towards a cheeseburger rather than a head of lettuce, not everyone is able to easily enjoy a plant-based life. I also know that a variety of health concerns make a completely vegan lifestyle unhealthy for some individuals. Due to surgeries related to my mom’s own cancer she cannot sustain a solely plant-based way of eating.

Unfortunately, I do not have the answers to all the problems our society is facing. But I do know that doing something is better than doing nothing. In my experience, swapping beef jerky for a handful of blueberries or changing how we consume creation—encountering the earth in gratitude and kinship rather than greed and hierarchy—can allow for a deeper, more intrinsic experience with God.

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