Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion Sara Miles (2007, Ballantine Books)
I don’t know exactly what makes cooks such good writers. Maybe it’s their well-developed attention to sensory detail; perhaps a facility with sequences, relationships, and balance; maybe just a habit of hard work, staying with something till it’s right, and then sending it out. Sara Miles is that kind of cook, and that kind of writer.
Take This Bread is a spiritual memoir about how Miles came to run a wildly successful food pantry in a San Francisco church. She had, it turns out, been preparing the ingredients of food and economic justice all her life. Her parents adopted atheism in reaction to their own parents’ lifelong ministry and mission work; they raised Sara and her brother and sister “with boundless love, liberal politics, and secular morals.” It was a model upbringing of its kind, full of books, music, art, and good cooking, and entirely free from religious stories.
Miles spent part of her young adulthood traveling and studying in Mexico, cutting her teeth as a writer and activist. Because those activities paid poorly, she also acquired restaurant skills in New York restaurants. Hard, hot, sweaty work, but satisfying: “I learned from watching customers that the rituals of even the plainest or most cynically prepared dinner could carry unconscious messages of love and comfort.”
She had a chance to go back to Latin America, doing research in Nicaragua for a human rights organization. As the U.S. waged covert war on the revolutionary government, she organized trips for American citizens to help on farms in the threatened areas. Living and working together was essential political education, and, potentially, the volunteers could protect the peasants from attack; “Dead Americans were going to be more of a problem for Washington than dead Nicaraguans.”
Miles was dedicated, fearless, and a little ruthless. She spent six years in various war zones, always looking on the margins for the real consequences of policies and ideologies. “Writing about and living in such war absorbed me totally.... Some of it, I think, was about the simple adrenaline thrill of danger and a guilty but real happiness about coming out alive.” This experience belonged to each person, but also to all of them: “We all had bodies that could suffer and be killed; we all had hearts that could stop beating in an instant.” Everywhere and always, people shared food with her, no matter how little they had.
In time, Miles fell in love with another journalist; in 1988, she became pregnant, as matters in El Salvador went from bad to worse. The couple moved to San Francisco, where they split up, sharing the care of Katie, and each acquired a same-sex partner. Miles was still writing and militating, now about the AIDS epidemic, but her life became safer and more predictable, even domestic.
Then one day in 1999, she walked into St. Gregory’s Episcopal church, out of simple curiosity, and was given bread and wine, in a Eucharist open to all. The connection between the smell, taste, and feel of the bread and wine, and the name of Jesus, opened a door in Miles that she hadn’t even suspected was there. “I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind.”
She didn’t have much context for this experience. In the U.S., she knew practically nobody who went to church; her friends were “cynical, hilarious, and overeducated, with years of therapy and contemporary literature behind them, and I was afraid to mention that I was slipping off to church and singing about Jesus on Sundays insteand of sleeping late, cooking brunch, and reading the New York Times Book Review as I’d been raised to do.”
She soon discovered that St. Gregory’s was an outlier; both the space and liturgy were designed to make worship as physical, as incarnational, as possible. Chanting, moving, eating, and drinking were offered as better ways of apprehending the Holy than talking or thinking. Not that Miles didn’t read–she spent her first year around St. Gregory’s catching up on the Bible, and on the vexed history of Christianity, Anglicanism, and the Episcopal church.
At the heart of it all, because Miles was who she is, was the part of the Bible where Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep.’ She joined the group of people in robes who helped hand out the Eucharist, facing the hard truth about the fact that it’s meant for everybody: “I was not going to get to sit by myself and think loftily about how much Jesus loved me in particular. I was not going to get to have dinner, eternally, with people just like me. I was going to get communion, whether I wanted it or not, with people I didn’t necessarily like. People I didn’t choose.”
Miles came up with a way to make the Eucharistic circle even bigger, with groceries from the San Francisco Food Bank instead of bread and wine. Housing was (and is) so expensive in the Bay area that working people and people on pensions kept roofs over their heads at the expense of groceries – while, come to find out, grocery stores and Big Food have an embarrassing surplus of unprofitable food.
The idea of a regular food pantry made waves inside the parish, naturally. Everybody had reasons why it couldn’t work, or would be too hard: the expense, the likelihood of volunteer burnout, and the mess and danger of inviting the down and out into the beautiful sanctuary space (with its gorgeous custom carved altar.) What would the neighbors say?
But Miles used the organizing and political skills she’d been honing all her life, taking in all the objections, meeting them with whatever combination of sincerity and manipulation seemed appropriate, carried by her conviction that feeding people was simply the right thing to do. People started coming: a few dozen at first, but pretty soon by the hundred. “The pantry wasn’t hushed and pious; it was loud and holy. As the whores and cripples, widows and foreigners and thieves and little children gathered outside, it took on an almost biblical atmosphere.”
Some of the people who needed the program turned out to be willing and able to volunteer for it, as a matter of dignity and of gratitude transformed, in God’s familiar alchemy, into generosity. Completing a circle, Miles also rolled up her sleeves and started cooking lunch before each Friday’s food pantry service; the body of Christ sat down to a meal together before opening up to feed the flocks.
Though Miles didn’t lose all of her cynical resistance, it’s clearly the Gospel that gave her the courage to keep on with all this, even as it convicted her of every temptation to separate herself from Christ’s body: she was every bit as hungry, lonely, angry, and scared as any of them. It’s all there: the impatience with church people who don’t think this is the important thing to be doing; the conflict on the home front when all this church work takes her away from Martha and Katie’s lives; the impossibility of loving people who take groceries away and sell them, or get aggressive when the line is too long.
Just as clearly, it’s Divine Providence that brings Miles the volunteers; the wonderful people at the central food pantry; the philanthropist who discovers her work, and helps her plant pantries in other areas; an excellent spiritual director; and the priest who moves from Texas to join the St. Gregory’s staff, and help her cook the lunch.
Take This Bread puts to shame all the conversation about doctrine and polity we sometimes waste our days with. If Jesus is real, we need to invite him to supper.
I started reviewing books nearly twenty years ago for Voices, the occasional newsletter of Emmanuel Church, Boston. The newsletter has evolved to a different form, but I still try to write something every month. I've shared these with friends by email, and it seems good to post them here as an archive, to see what connections may emerge. Welcome, and happy reading!