In southern Maine, vegan potlucks are popping up at a growing number of churches.

At local Seventh-day Adventist churches, vegan food has a long history that goes back to one of the founders of the Protestant denomination, Portland native Ellen G. White.

Beginning in 1863, White had a series of spiritual visions related to diet and health, which is why the Adventist church encourages (but does not require) members to eat minimally processed, plant-based foods. Today this means vegan and vegetarian dishes dominate the meals and potlucks enjoyed at many Adventist churches in Maine.

Paul K. Chappell is a West Point graduate and peace activist whose visit to Unity Church in Windham spurred many church members to eat more plant-based foods. Courtesy of Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

Paul K. Chappell is a West Point graduate and peace activist whose visit to Unity Church in Windham spurred many church members to eat more plant-based foods. Courtesy of Nuclear Age Peace Foundation Courtesy of Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

The Topsham Seventh-day Adventist Church takes it a step further, offering a monthly vegan cooking demonstration and plant-based health talk as part of an evening series called Simply Botanical – Choosing Life.

“The classes are stand-alone,” said Dr. Timothy Howe, who gives the talks and has helped organize this and similar programs at the church for the past 12 years. “But we try to cover a wide range of topics within a given year so that those who come can develop a strong scientific and philosophic basis for choosing a plant-based diet. Each class begins with a cooking demonstration, then tasting for all, then a nutrition lecture for about 30 minutes.”

Recent cooking demonstrations have featured oat-pecan burgers, avocado-basil pesto, homemade ketchup and DIY sauerkraut, while covering health topics such as endocrine disrupters and eyesight.

Howe spearheaded the popular Lifestyle Choices vegan program at the former Parkview Adventist Medical Center in Brunswick. Following the center’s recent merger with Mid Coast Hospital, the program was shuttered. However, Howe reports he is in talks with officials at Mid Coast and other area health-care institutions about similar preventative medicine programs.

Many members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick took the Lifestyle Choices class and have become vegan or veganish as a result. The church now hosts a vegan potluck once a month after Sunday services. Church members Larry Lemmel and Jessica Tracy first organized the potluck seven years ago in hopes of creating a “support group” and are encouraged that up to 15 people attend every month.

“I think it’s a matter of shared values and people who care about the earth,” Lemmel said.

The move toward vegan eating was affirmed by the national Unitarian Universalist Association in 2011, when the body adopted a Statement of Conscience on ethical eating. The document raises concerns about factory farms, farm worker rights and pesticides, though it did not call for a single dietary approach.

“Minimally processed plant-based diets are healthier diets,” the position paper states. It later adds: “Unitarian Universalists acknowledge and accept the challenge of enlarging our circle of moral concern to include all living creatures.”

This is a spiritual philosophy shared by Howe, who was invited to give a sermon at the Brunswick congregation last December. He spoke about mankind’s failure to steward the earth as instructed in Genesis.

"The Art of Waging Peace" by vegan Paul K. Chappell

“The Art of Waging Peace” by vegan Paul K. Chappell

“We must eat to maximize our own health, the earth’s health and our brothers’ health and well-being,” Howe said to the congregation. “There is only one diet that will accomplish all three.”

Kristen Aiello and her daughter Anne organized a well-attended vegan potluck at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church in Augusta from 2012 until last year. Aiello said that now that her daughter is away at college, she hasn’t had time to organize more potlucks.

In Windham, the Rev. Pat Bessey of Unity of Greater Portland Church is part of a congregation gently moving toward a plant-based, veganish way of eating. This July the church started hosting monthly vegan potlucks in the evening that include a guest speaker. Unity has switched its after-service meal to all-vegetarian, with vegan options.

Bessey, her husband, the Rev. LeRoy Lowell, and other members of the church community were nudged toward vegan eating by a shared experience. In late winter each year, Unity celebrates a season of nonviolence and this year they invited author, Army captain and veteran Paul K. Chappell, a director at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, to do a training about peace. During his visit, the church members who had organized the training had dinner with Chappell and learned he was vegan.

“When he left, it left us with a shift,” Bessey recalls. “My husband and I and other people in the community felt this shift. We began to talk amongst ourselves about how this fits in. This is really an ethical issue.”

Members of the Brunswick Unitarian Universalist Church gather at October's vegan potluck, which included chocolate cake, kale salad, roasted Brussels sprouts, and red beans and rice casserole. In the front row, from left, Val Heath, Esther Mechler, Faith Woodman and Andrea Sinclair. In back, from left, Mike Heath, Jessica Tracy, Larry Lemmel and Hugh Maynard. Courtesy of Brunswick Unitarian Universalist Church

Members of the Brunswick Unitarian Universalist Church gather at October’s vegan potluck, which included chocolate cake, kale salad, roasted Brussels sprouts, and red beans and rice casserole. In the front row, from left, Val Heath, Esther Mechler, Faith Woodman and Andrea Sinclair. In back, from left, Mike Heath, Jessica Tracy, Larry Lemmel and Hugh Maynard. Courtesy of Brunswick Unitarian Universalist Church Courtesy of Brunswick Unitarian Universalist Church

After Chappell’s visit, the church brought in peace advocate and author Will Tuttle to speak. Tuttle is also a vegan.

In her role as the religious community’s minister, Bessey speaks about food with care. A vegan diet “is not something we say everyone has to do,” Bessey said. “We accept everyone on their path where they are.”

Bessey is sensitive to the range of feelings about diet among church members and is careful “nothing gets said from the platform regarding veganism other than announcing the potluck.” She said for those looking for ways to grow spiritually, vegan eating can be an option, but it’s not a requirement.

Like the Seventh-day Adventists, Unity Worldwide Ministries traces its roots to 19th-century vegetarians, in this case Charles and Myrtle Fillmore. The Fillmores operated a popular vegetarian restaurant in Kansas City called Unity Inn in the early part of the 20th century. Bessey recently learned about this connection and said it reaffirms her and her husband’s decision to adopt a vegan diet.

“We are going back to what the founders of our movement really stood for,” Bessey said.

Howe of the Topsham Seventh-day Adventist Church looks further back, much further, specifically to the books of Genesis, Isaiah and Revelation in the Bible, which speak of a vegetarian Eden and a time when the “wolf also shall dwell with the lamb.”

“The prophets envisioned a time when animals and man would return to a plant-based diet, when violence would cease and the earth would be at peace,” Howe said in his sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick. “Perhaps the time has come for us to embrace their vision.”

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

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