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The Unlikely Vegetarian

Blessedly Healthy and Happy

The Unlikely Vegetarian

by Charles P. Gibbs

It seems unlikely that someone who co-founded Tulsa Beef and Feed, a motorcycle “gang,” would become a vegetarian. And, yet, I did; and I did. Here’s the story of an unlikely vegetarian.

I was born and raised in the great southwest of the United States – born in New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment; and mostly raised in Oklahoma, the Sooner State, puzzlingly named after the people who cheated in the 1889 land rush that opened territory originally occupied by Indigenous people – who were forcibly removed – to settlement by white people. Oklahoma became a state 20 years later, and when my family moved there in 1957 it was known for its production of oil and beef cattle. The state’s religion, depending on the day of the week, was either football or conservative Christianity. A typical meal was meat, potatoes and a helping of vegetables, with the vegetables being optional. In fact, a meal without meat didn’t really qualify as a meal. Even breakfast.

Tulsa in the 1950s, its oilfields in the background – Photo:  Tulsahistory.org

Tulsa in the 1950s, its oilfields in the background – Photo: Tulsahistory.org

When we moved to Oklahoma, my family settled in as caretakers on a wealthy man’s hobby ranch, 80 acres of rolling prairie dotted with woods and two ‘man-made’ ponds. We lived about ten miles from downtown Tulsa, which prided itself as being “the oil capital of the world.” I grew up taking care of 30 head of white-face Hereford cattle, playing football, and attending church, Christian (Episcopalian, to be precise), but not conservative.

And I grew up eating meat. Lots of meat – bacon and breakfast sausage; hamburgers, hot dogs and bologna; fried chicken, meatloaf and pot roast; spaghetti with meatballs; and, on special occasions, turkey or baked ham.

On a related matter, I grew up assuming that the kitchen belonged to women (which sounds nicer than that women belong in the kitchen – the belief of many), who did all the cooking, except on the outdoor barbecue, which was the meat-cooking domain of men. I assumed the heavenly banquet table would groan under the weight of all manner of delicious meat, not really ever thinking about a heaven for animals. This was a) because of course, animals didn’t have souls and therefore didn’t have a heaven; and b) because everything on earth existed for the sole purpose of meeting some need of men. This was in those ancient days when male nouns and pronouns were understood to be inclusive, which subtly reinforced the at-the-time largely unexamined and biblically mandated message that the human male was the pinnacle of creation, to be served by the rest of creation, including human females.

Living in the flowing tide of history, changing location and receiving a broader education, can change many things. At 18, having quit going to church the year before but still being a committed meat-eater, I moved to New York City for college so I could be at the epicenter of the growing movement protesting America’s war in Vietnam; and also found myself at the epicenter of the Women’s Liberation Movement. I came to question many things I’d grown up believing. I no longer trusted my government. I no longer trusted the church. I was in the early stages of cultivating a belief that has endured for nearly half a century – that much of the ill in the world can be laid at the feet of men and the male penchant to dominate. The way out of these ills has to include inviting and supporting the leadership of women, while men increasingly take on supportive roles. Having to learn how to cook to eat, I embraced the kitchen as a place for creativity and exploration. And while I grew less dogmatic about the necessity of having meat on the table at every meal, and even allowed larger portions of vegetables to grace the plate, I never questioned the morality, the rightness or wrongness, of eating meat.

During some time off, as I drifted my way through college, I co-founded Tulsa Beef and Feed with two other friends who, like me, owned Harley Davidson motorcycles. We identified ourselves with a sizeable round leather patch on the back of our blue jean jackets, with Tulsa Beef and Feed spelled out around the edge and the center occupied by the silhouette of a large Black Angus bull. We roared crazily along country roads on our bikes, miraculously not killing ourselves. And I put in a lot of time developing my skills cooking on an outdoor barbecue. In those days, the only thing you would cook on a barbecue was – you guessed it – meat.

Having a degree in theater arts didn’t qualify me for much of anything. One of my first jobs out of college was as the foreman/ranch hand at the L&P Land and Cattle Company, outside Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. We raised pure-bred Black Angus beef cattle. I loved being outdoors. Walking the pastures. Working with the cattle. Riding horses. There was always plenty of beef on the table.

A Seed Planted

James Dickey – Photo:  Geni.com

James Dickey – Photo: Geni.com

So, what happened? How did someone raised as I was raised reach a point where he decided he would no longer eat meat – not from animals that walked or crawled or hopped or slithered or flew or swam – as long as he lived? Like most of the important changes in my life, it’s a little mysterious. I think a seed was planted when I was in graduate school in fiction and poetry writing at the University of Minnesota and came across a poem by James Dickey called "The Heaven of Animals," which includes these lines:

For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt, as they have done,
But with claws and teeth grown perfect,  

More deadly than they can believe.
They stalk more silently,
And crouch on the limbs of trees,
And their descent
Upon the bright backs of their prey

May take years
In a sovereign floating of joy.
And those that are hunted
Know this as their life,
Their reward: to walk

Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain

At the cycle’s center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.

I loved much of James Dickey’s poetry and committed some of it to memory; but this poem, these lines, left me profoundly uneasy. Though there is a logic to these lines – the hunted still hunt; the prey are still preyed upon – I believed in a heaven (when I believed in a heaven) that was beyond logic. A heaven that mirrored the Prophet Isaiah’s peaceable community:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
            the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
            and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
            their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox….
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain…

                                    Isaiah 11:6-7, 9a

I couldn’t rest easy with James Dickey’s heaven for animals, and though I didn’t contemplate becoming an herbivore like all the animals in Isaiah’s peaceable community, a seed had been planted.

In her masterful book, Lab Girl, Hope Jahren writes this about seeds:

A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance – to take its one and only chance to grow. (p.30)
Pomegranate seeds – Photo:  Flickr, Vince, Cc.2.0

Pomegranate seeds – Photo: Flickr, Vince, Cc.2.0

Unbeknownst to me, the seed inside was waiting for me to find and be found by the inspiration that became the United Religions Initiative, which came six years after I graduated from seminary (having returned to the Episcopal Church some years earlier) and was leading the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in San Francisco. The seed inside me grew to the point that, in the ninth year of my priesthood, I resigned from my position at Incarnation and devoted my life to helping to create URI.

As I took my early joyful, challenging steps into what would become a 17-year tenure as URI’s founding executive director, I became increasingly aware that the spiritual center of my life was shifting. While on one level I realized I needed to learn more about the world’s religions – Huston Smith’s magnificent Illustrated World’s Religions was a constant companion – on a deeper level I felt called to follow Huston’s example and experience a tradition different from mine from the inside out. So, my second spiritual home became the Brahma Kumaris, a spiritual movement led by women. The BK’s leader in San Francisco, Sister Chandru Desai, became my teacher in raja yoga meditation and my dear spiritual friend, a friendship now over two decades old.

Rice pulao created with a Brahma Kumari recipe – Photo:  Brahma Kumaris

Rice pulao created with a Brahma Kumari recipe – Photo: Brahma Kumaris

The Brahma Kumaris are strict vegetarians, so whenever I was with them, as I was frequently as several of their centers around the world hosted interfaith events for URI in our early years, I ate a vegetarian diet. With a much more disciplined meditation practice (I’d been a meditator for decades) and more exposure to vegetarian food (not only through the BKs, but also through new friends and colleagues who were Buddhists, Jains, and other spiritual paths) something began to shift in me and for me.

I’d always trusted the messages my body, expressing something from my deeper consciousness, gave me. It told me to stop smoking when I was in college and to stop drinking coffee just out of seminary. Now the message that infiltrated the edge of my awareness was to stop eating meat. This message wasn’t in the form of rational deliberation about the ethics of killing other animals, or of the travesty of the industrialized raising and harvesting of animals for consumption, or of the significant environmental cost of raising beef cattle. Though I believe these perspectives are all important and deserve deep consideration by people who eat meat, they didn’t factor into my decision to stop eating meat and become a vegetarian. No, that decision emanated from my evolving spiritual core as a mandate to live in the present as though Isaiah’s peaceable community already existed fully. To live, as fully as I was able, in harmony with the marvelously diverse life on Earth.

So, nearly two decades ago I made the decision to stop eating meat. I didn’t want to impose my decision on my family and, since I was the primary cook in our family, this meant that, for several years, I continued to cook meat for the rest of the family while I ate plant-based protein. It’s worth noting that the year I became a vegetarian, our son, Ben, became a founding member of the Meat Club at his high school in San Francisco; and that some years later our daughter, Naomi, announced that she was becoming a vegetarian. With Ben at college and Naomi no longer eating meat, I cooked meat less and less often; and when, in 2007, my wife, Debbie, moved to Washington, DC to be the head of a school there, I stopped cooking meat entirely and soon discovered that being in a room where meat was cooking made me sick to my stomach.

An Amazing Cuisine

Ingredients to delight a vegetarian chef – Photo: Wikipedia, USDA, Scott Bouer

Ingredients to delight a vegetarian chef – Photo: Wikipedia, USDA, Scott Bouer

When I first became a vegetarian, I spent some time feeling sorry for myself, as I thought of all the delicious dishes I would never eat again. Soon, that feeling disappeared, much as the starting point of any journey disappears as you move forward. Over the years, I’ve taken great joy from sampling amazing vegetarian cuisine all over the world, in experimenting with my own cooking, and in seeing how vegetarianism has come increasingly to the foreground of American consciousness, including a growing body of medical understanding that eating too much meat is harmful to your health. You can find evidence of this shifting awareness in what more and more people cook, on the shelves of many grocery stores and on the menus of an always-expanding variety of restaurants. It ranges from a wide variety of veggie burgers to vegetarian paella to pasta primavera to the joys of hummus, babaganoush, tabouli and tzatziki to the delicious vegetarian Thanksgiving feasts our daughter conjures to the delicious meatless alternatives our still-meat-loving son lovingly prepares.

At the same time, I’m often challenged, as I travel to different areas of my country and some parts of the world, to find the food I need to stay healthy and with a good energy level. More than once I’ve discovered that the “vegetarian” soup was made with chicken stock, or that the “vegetarian” beans had been cooked with meat for flavoring. At times like this, I resort to the supply of food – protein bars, nuts, and so on – I carry when I travel.

At 65 with 66 not far away, this former co-founder of Tulsa Beef and Feed can’t imagine not being a vegetarian. I am blessedly healthy and happy with what I eat. How much of my good health is because of being a vegetarian? I can’t say. But I can say that I believe our planet and the people on it would be much healthier if we were a world of vegetarians. Or at least a world where people ate much more plant-based protein and much less meat-based protein. And, regardless of our diet, I believe we’d be much closer to Isaiah’s peaceable community if we lived each day mindful of the life that is sacrificed that we might have life, and in boundless gratitude – offering more than we receive and giving more than we take.