Sunday, September 23, 2007

A Review of Take This Bread by Sara Miles

There are plenty of conversion stories that we have access to in books and the internet. They may or may not feature the life pre-conversion, which is typically screwed up, drugged up, sexed up, with lots of other bad habits. Then the moment of conversion happens, and in this stereotypical story the habits disappear and the person becomes a deacon or something.

Sara Miles does share her story pre-conversion, which is exciting but not necessarily a tragedy. The conversion moment is better described as a process. And she actually does become a deacon, but not the deacon one would expect.

Miles tells of her life before converting to Christianity. Raised in an atheist home, she finds little to no sympathy for religious causes. She hints that this is, at least for her mother, a rebellion against her own religious upbringing. There is not much of an overtone that her household was an "active atheist" home...that is, one that taught her to go out of her way to disprove God, join the fight against public faith, and sign petitions against the pledge. She tells more of an upbringing of avoidance....that religion was best ignored.

This is followed by two chapters of her job life, first as a cook in New York City and then as a reporter in Nicaragua around the time of the cartels. She describes the people she meets and the sights and sounds of her experiences in the kitchen and in war, and in both instances very careful to describe the food: how it is prepared, how it is served, how it tastes. She's obviously building to something as she learns cooking shortcuts from her restaurant co-worker and the meals she ate alongside revolutionaries and murderers in Central America. In both cases, it is food prepared generously, earnestly, and with feeling, and shared with much the same intentions. She is always in mixed company, and she wants to emphasize that point as well.

Next begins her life in San Francisco. Everything else serves as background for what she is about to do in this place. If her chief memories up to this point center around food, then it makes sense that her conversion happens because of food as well. For reasons unclear to her, she wanders into a liberal creative Episcopalian Church and receives communion, and there is something about that moment for her that makes sense. It is in the offering, the chewing, the drinking, that the act of receiving Jesus becomes real to her. It takes place in this way, rather than in an evangelist sharing a tract or by someone accosting her with their most carefully crafted arguments. She is welcomed and she is offered bread, and that is when she begins wondering how to follow Jesus.

What she comes up with is forever tied to that first experience. As Sara becomes more involved with her church, she seeks to share this experience with others, and finds that the best way to do that is to organize a food pantry. Usually, when we think of food pantries, we may picture a closet or a section of the church basement set aside with rows of canned goods. When St. Gregory offers their pantry, they set the food--which includes fresh produce--right around the communion table in the sanctuary. The theology of communion is always front and center for Miles and for what she wants to organize. She finds no other way to properly offer food to others than to state it's because Jesus offered it first.

This project is undertaken not without some setbacks and roadblocks. Sara notes the mixed crowd that shows up: the homeless, the addicts, the schemers...she has plenty of stories to tell about them all. More than one person expresses thankfulness; even eventually volunteers to help. But for every one of these, there is the man who tries to take advantage of a timid girl's hospitality, there is a rude Russian with a sense of entitlement, there is the uneasy feeling that Miles gets at points when she delivers food to shut-ins. She sugarcoats none of it; she doesn't romanticize the people she helps or lament when they don't immediately change upon entering the doors of the church.

Perhaps Miles' most biting critique is reserved for the Church itself. One may actually be surprised that, while more conservative churches are mentioned from time to time, she's hardest on the liberals. She openly wonders about the dissonance between their wanting to welcome all people and then her need to fight to offer the pantry a second day. She frequently compares the uniquely creative and vibrant liturgy she experiences at St. Gregory's with the dry traditionalism at a denominational leaders' retreat ("If these are the people who want to hear about experimental liturgy, what are the conservatives like?"). She critiques "limosine liberal" activism-at-a-distance, and at almost every turn it's the white educated middle-class who bear the brunt of what she says.

Miles' story and advocacy comes in the form of experiencing Jesus in sharing bread and then turning right around and experiencing it with others. In many churches, we point to Jesus' preferred crowd of prostitutes and tax collectors, but Miles' story is one of witness to what this actually looks like in a particular place, and the underlying question always concerns why more churches aren't doing the same thing. One of her strongest themes to this effect is how simple it really is to feed others, and how needlessly complicated the church makes it either out of its own institutionalism or avoidance. This is as challenging a book as it is encouraging.