Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.

Church communities live and die by shared practices. In the same way that you can take stock of an individual person’s physical health by checking their vitals, you might assess a church’s health by its communal activities. Attending to them, we hear the muffled sounds of the institution’s heartbeats.

Eating is one of the most basic communal activities imaginable, and the life of a church moves in a regular orbit around a holy meal. In western evangelical Protestantism, communion may not take place every week, but it is likely that a stealth communion does in the form of a Wednesday night dinner. Signs of health for the church but portents of poor health for the church’s members, these dinners are characterized by a reliance upon an old and dependable cooking tool for their success: the crockpot.

For a suggested donation, whole families can help themselves to crockpots full of simmering plasmic foodstuffs, cooked unseen over the course of hours. I witnessed this operation as a child in the garage and pantry, and was amazed that someone had created a microwave that takes the amount of time required by a normal microwave, multiplies it exponentially, and produces hot food. What kind of retrograde magic was this?

Lined with residual food stains, the ringed basin of a crockpot might contain clues about its age. How many have drawn the ladle through this meat-slick slough of beans? How many have since died? Is there a relation between those two figures? Are they discoverable, or are they locked in the vault of time that has passed without notice?

At church, we stand by the counter and its row of steaming pots, and we scrape plastic forks over paper plates. The instruments are tawdry, but the conversation strains as far towards the holy as our incurably Midwestern politeness and idiom will allow. Oblique disclosures offered with secret hopes enter more easily into conversation when hot chili and cold lemonade are sating the material appetites; with a ravening stomach quieted, a still deeper hunger and thirst might direct the will toward their own objects.

Prayer, that other ancient and basic communal activity, marks off the appropriate time for partaking of this food, twice blessed along with the hands that worked to prepare it. People stand expectantly, their paper plates pressed into their chests as they scan the offerings, and their kids roister under the hoops in the adjacent gym. They’re biding their time; the longer they wait to join their parents, the likelier it is that they will find the salad depleted.

When they run to the counter they seek out neon cheese puffs and other edible forms of insulation before placing a scoop of stew or a sloppy joe over it all. Their parents have idled to their seats, where they are praying the second prayer over what they are about to consume. Some of their kids hang their legs through the railing on the catwalk above the gym, eating and watching from a height.

Shouts, screams, and laughter rise and fall around fifteen round tables draped in thin plastic; adults strain to hear one another over laden plates. They discuss their lives, their kids, their current goings-on. Their conversations recur eternally, like youth and death do; their faces sag with the weight of accumulated cheese and grease, but their laugh lines deepen also. They return to the well and draw; they go back for a second ladleful of beans and then a cup of water for the walk to the sanctuary, where, having sated one hunger, they might address another that admits of no material satisfaction.

All the while, the white and beige pots sit upon the counter, their contents bubbling like a primordial froth. What dark secrets are hidden in these fragrant pools? One comes to mind: that we must eat to live, but even if we eat, we will still die.