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A Love that Feeds the Hunger

Author Sara Miles on her spiritual quest to help the poor.

By Rex Weyler 14 Feb 2008 |

Rex Weyler is the author of Greenpeace, a history of the Vancouver ecology organization. His new book, The Jesus Sayings, will be out in March from Anansi Press

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Miles: Valentines for the dispossessed.
  • Take This Bread
  • Sara Miles
  • Ballantine Paperback (2008)

Do you sometimes wish that religion would just go away: fundamentalists blowing each other up, warmongering televangelists, pedophile priests, preening politicians boasting a cozy relationship with God?

Meet Sara Miles and her "terribly inconvenient Christian conversion." Miles -- a self-taught cook, a radical war correspondent in Central America during the 1980s, a mother, and an editor of gay and lesbian literature -- entered St. Gregory's Episcopal Church in San Francisco in 1999, tired, hungry, and distraught. She had no particular expectation, but she received a communion offering of real, fresh bread, felt her own deep hunger, and discovered a calling to feed others.

Sara Miles "found Jesus" in the simple act of giving food. She discovered that the core message of Jesus was "feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit prisoners." She concluded that Jesus did not promote religious convention and did not exclude anyone, but rather offered love and compassion to all, without conditions. Miles took this message at face value -- as did Francis of Assisi, Albert Schweitzer, Dorothy Day, and others throughout history -- and she began feeding people. San Francisco, like Vancouver and Victoria, is a postcard magnet for wealth that is pushing its dispossessed, many of them mentally ill or addicted, ever further to its margins. Miles collected reject or cheap food and established a free food pantry at St. Gregory's church. Hundreds of the city's poor, desperate and homeless came for groceries, with no questions asked.

Then, a miracle occurred. The food multiplied before her eyes. Many of the destitute stayed and wanted to help. Homeless beggars transformed themselves into providers for others. A lawyer heard about her project and provided $250,000 from a court charity fund. Miles used the money to establish fourteen free food pantries in San Francisco, including one operated by high school students. Hundreds of poor families now eat regularly from these pantries. "There is a hunger beyond food that's expressed in food," California bishop Bill Swing told her, "and that's why feeding is always a kind of miracle."

"To feed others means acknowledging our own hunger and at the same time acknowledging the amazing abundance we're fed with by God," says Miles. In her book Take This Bread, Miles tells the story of her conversion and the miracle of giving that transforms both the recipient and the provider. I spoke with Sara Miles by phone and we exchanged e-mails. The following reflections are gleaned from those exchanges and her writing:

On Jesus's message about feeding the hungry

Jesus's message isn't just about feeding the hungry, though that imperative echoes throughout the Gospels. Jesus is also talking about eating with strangers, and especially the ritually unclean, the outcast, and the despised. In other words, not only does Jesus fulfill the prophets by feeding the hungry, he overturns the established order by insisting that there's no difference between family, neighbors and strangers. He makes a point of eating with the wrong people, thus erasing the distinctions between humans.

What I discovered is a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the despised and outcasts are honored.

We offer food to everybody without exception. We offer food to whoever walks in the door. We're the people that nobody wanted. You know, we're gay people and we're poor people and we're people living on the streets. And we're old ladies and cripples and whores and little children and foreigners . . . exactly the kind of people Jesus liked to hang out with.

On her conversion experience at St. Gregory's church

I think what I discovered in that moment when I put the bread in my mouth, and was so blown away by the reality of Jesus, was that the requirement for faith turned out not to be believing in a doctrine, or knowing how to behave in a church, or being the right kind of person, or being raised correctly, or repeating the rituals. The requirement for faith seemed to be hunger. It was the hunger that I had always had -- and the willingness to be fed by something I didn't understand.

On the power of giving

I came to church hungry, confused, inarticulately wanting something: I was given bread and wine; I stayed to feed others. This is exactly what happens when people come to the food pantry for food, and stay to help others. Everybody desires meaning through relationship, through giving as well as receiving. This isn't unique; it isn't contained by churches or religious experience; it doesn't belong to rich people; it's fundamentally human. It's also just a great feeling to give things away, without having to count the cost, decide who deserves it, or police other people's behavior.

Our volunteers aren't a select or professional group. And few of them are from St. Gregory's. They're unofficial: visitors who came to get groceries and then stuck around to help.

On lessons from wars

What I learned in those moments of danger and grief informs what I now call my Christianity: a feeling of total community with others, whether or not I was like them.

I could launch myself into a morning, an unknown town, a war zone, and be fed -- usually by strangers and sometimes by comrades, occasionally by enemies, but always by someone who was as hungry as I was or hungrier. We had hunger in common, and we had food.

On faith and God

Gregory of Nyssa, the church father who is the patron saint of my home church, says that we are most like God in our desire. I believe that our curiosity and our desire to know more lead us toward God in a continuing process. I don't think faith means figuring out a formula. I think it means remaining open to questions, and accepting that you don't know everything.

The God I found was a God who lived on earth, who knew what it was like to walk around in a body, fight with religious authorities, hurt his mother's feelings.

On women and religion

All religions try to codify and manage God, usually to justify and shore up existing human power systems. And most religions at some point are complicit with the powers of the world against the weak. And of course women and others who wind up on the wrong side of the religious authorities will and should try to change things. But it's also true that you don't need a whole new religion in order to make space in Christianity for a just relationship with women: you just need to follow the commandment to love God, and love your neighbor. That sounds simple, but practicing it without exception is a life's work, and utterly radical.

On belief in Jesus

I believe Jesus to be fully human, and fully God. Weird, illogical, but true. I believe the incarnation continues; that we bear Jesus in our bodies.

I know people who aren't "believers" but who identify Jesus as a compelling historical figure. I don't think it's my business to tell them they're wrong -- I figure Jesus can speak to them for himself.

On being a Christian

What happened once I started distributing communion was the truly disturbing, dreadful realization about Christianity: You can't be a Christian by yourself. I was not going to get to sit by myself and think loftily about how much Jesus loved me in particular. The faith I was finding was jagged and difficult. It wasn't about abstract theological debates: Does God exist? It was about action.

I wrestled with Christianity: its grand promises and its petty demands, its temptations and hypocrisies, its ugly history and often insufferable adherents.

At a moment when right-wing American Christianity is ascendant, when religion worldwide is rife with fundamentalism and exclusionary ideological crusades, I stumbled into a radically inclusive faith centered on sacraments and action.

On Church rules, doctrines

Church officials -- much like the temple authorities Jesus had ignored -- imposed rules about who could and could not receive communion. Instead of being God's freely given gift of reconciliation for everyone -- the central point of Jesus's barrier-breaking meals with sinners of all descriptions -- communion belonged to the religious authorities.

On the meaning of the 'kingdom'

Some Christians think the kingdom is about an afterlife, but I believe it is this world. Some think it's about judgment, but I believe that in the Kingdom there's no separation of sinners from the saved. The pantry looks like the Kingdom to me precisely because we were all thrown in together -- a makeshift community so much bigger and more contradictory than any of us would have chosen.

I see, all the time, how God continues to turn the world ("powers and principalities," secular kings and religious authorities) upside down through Jesus. The point isn't that the poor are blessed because they're poor, but that God makes creation whole, and leaves nobody out. Neither the poor nor the rich are excluded from the Kingdom, and those who try to exclude wind up failing to see the breadth of God's work.

On prayer

Any kind of prayer, to me, means letting go of the idea that I'm in control. Sometimes that means just blurting words out from my heart, and sometimes it means repeating another person's words. Either way, the purpose of prayer is to open myself to a force bigger than myself.

Prayer doesn't mean asking an omnipotent being to do favor, or reciting magical words to change things. When I prayed, the word "tender" filled my mind -- tender as in sore to the touch and compassionate at the same time.

On the words of Jesus that have meaning for her

"Don't be afraid."
"YOU give them something to eat."
"Love your enemies."

On the people who inspire her

I'm inspired by the volunteers at my food pantry: the homeless guys who show up at seven in the morning to open the church and start unloading the food truck; the funny, messed-up, unbelievably kind alcoholic who helps me with my kitchen chores; the poor woman who gives the illegal immigrant a place to stay on her couch. I'm inspired by the resiliency, generosity and open-mindedness my volunteers show to each other.

I'm inspired by people who feed others, particularly when the people they feed are annoying, ungrateful, and difficult. I'm inspired by the ways we make community around tables.

Sometimes it's humiliating or unexpected, but at the core of my experience in the food pantry, and in church, is seeing how I'm like other people -- both in my weaknesses and in my joy. How we're not separate, despite all the barriers we create: how in fact we're part of one body.