Interview: Sara Miles, author

by
28 July 2010

My new book, Jesus Freak, tells the stories of ordinary people who take up Jesus’s work in the world —feeding, healing, and raising the dead. My first book, Take This Bread, was an account of my completely unexpected mid-life conversion — I’d been an atheist and a journalist, with no religious upbringing whatsoever.

I worked for years as a line cook in restaurant kitchens. I love the heat, the hilarity, the showing-off and camaraderie, the wild invention, the physicality. Of course, it ruins your feet.

I wandered into a church one morning, was offered communion, and understood two things at the same time: I was eating a real chunk of bread, and God was alive, and in my mouth. It devastated me. I wrote about the ways that communion inspired me to set up a food pantry in the middle of the sanctuary, around that same altar [St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco], giving away groceries to anyone who showed up. Now we serve more than 600 people a week.

So “Feed my sheep” is not a met­aphor. In Jesus Freak I continue to take Jesus’s charge to his disciples literally: heal, forgive, raise the dead. It’s crazy that Jesus would trust us, this bunch of cowards and clowns, to do his work, but I believe we’ve been breathed upon, and given the power to act as if we are, in fact, the real body of Christ.

I embarrassed people by talking too much about Jesus. As if he were real. There’s often a moment when I’m hanging out with a group of Chris­tians –– usually liberal Christians, the kind who care about global warming and inclusive language –– and I see them glance at me as if I’m a total freak.

The food pantry is funded entirely by (mostly very small) donations — not by the church, or by govern­ment. It’s not a social service pro­gramme but a eucharistic com­munity, modelled on the rather unworldly principle that God’s abundance is for everyone, without exception — thieves, whores, foreigners, cripples, saintly widows, upstanding citizens, little children, the annoying and “undeserving” poor. It’s run entirely by these same people, that is, by the people who use it. We’re not a pro­gramme run by nice church ladies for poor people. We’ve helped launch 18 other food pantries around the San Francisco Bay area.

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I have a great fondness for Romans, though it’s sort of perverse to be a left-wing, lesbian feminist who likes St Paul so much. But he’s a self-righteous, blindsided, unprepared mid-life convert, as I am, and I relate to his sense of the utter reality of Jesus.

I don’t think my Christianity is particularly radical — it’s actually quite orthodox. But I think I’ve been blessed by coming to the faith later in life. I hadn’t heard the words repeated so many times that they lost their power.

My immediate family, my wife and daughter, as well as my mother, brother, and sister, are very import­ant parts of my life. And I feel in­credibly lucky to be surrounded by the most unlikely, oddball set of people: not necessarily the people I would have chosen for myself, but, thank God, the people God chose for me.

As a kid, I was always writing. That hasn’t changed: writing re­mains the way that I think, and work things through.

Deciding to be baptised was terrifying. I wanted it so much, and yet re­sisted the idea of dying, of going under, of losing my old self. Becom­ing a Christian didn’t turn me magically into a differ­ent person, and certainly not into a nicer one. But it made me freer.

I don’t expect to be admired for my excellent moral character; but I like to be thought of as funny.

I read constantly and promis­cuously; so my favourite book tends to be the one I’m in the middle of. I’ve just finished Donna Tart’s The Little Friend, which is brilliant, almost as funny and painful as the book it’s a homage to: Harriet the Spy.

I’ve heard some amazing, powerful preaching, when the Spirit makes people just blurt things out: there’s an electricity in the room when the truth is spoken aloud. But I also hear a lot of banal preaching that’s kind of mediocre and self-helpy, or jargon-filled exhortation that’s pious and insincere. Then there’s the popular American “enough about God — let’s talk about me” formula, where the preacher tells endless cute anecdotes about his kids.

My ideal sermon is one I heard about from a friend who spent years as a monastic. He told me about one of his Brothers, an elderly and fairly senile man, who, when he took his turn preaching, would just stand in the pulpit and repeat: “Mercy. Mercy. Mercy.”

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I just returned from several weeks in Kerala, in the south of India, which was gorgeous — shimmering lakes and canals, ancient Syrian churches, crazy traffic, little roadside shrines where statues of Mary are festooned with garlands of tuberose and blinking lights and sequins.

I love singing the Psalms every morning: they’ve sunk into me as much as anything in scripture. And I love the mystical Wisdom texts, and the Odes of Solomon, and, on the other hand, the sort of businesslike, wire-service reporting in Mark. I could do without Leviticus.

At St Gregory’s, almost all the service is sung. When we stand around the altar and the priest chants the eucharistic prayer, there’s a spon­taneous harmonic drone, a hum, that rises up from the people — not from any particular person, or from the choir, just vibrating through everyone. It’s like the very sound of prayer.

My most authentic prayer doesn’t have a lot of words: it’s more of a giving up, a leaning-in. But when I’m feeling stressed and demanding and determined to run everything, it helps me to just turn my hands up and say: “Thanks, God.”

If I were locked in a church for a few hours, I’d like to be with someone who could really sing, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It’s always so great to hear actual human voices in church, without the overwhelming organ.

Sara Miles was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

For more details of Jesus Freak or the food pantry, see www.saramiles.net and www.thefoodpantry.org

For more details of Jesus Freak or the food pantry, see www.saramiles.net and www.thefoodpantry.org

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