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Handing out the bread of heaven

by
25 January 2012

In an edited extract from her new book, Sara Miles tells how a sudden conversion led her to imitate Christ and start a food programme in her church in San Fransisco

Groceries giveaway: above: the food pantry is organised in the body of the church, around the central altar

Groceries giveaway: above: the food pantry is organised in the body of the church, around the central altar

“YOU’RE such a freakin’ Jesus freak, Sara,” Paul said. “I mean that in the nicest possible way, of course.”

The two of us had been cooking for hours, preparing lunch for the volunteers at our church’s food pantry. Paul Fromberg was my friend and the Rector at St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, where I was a part-time lay staff member; together we served in the beautiful, Byzantine-inflected liturgy on Sundays.

But, every Friday, we turned the sanctuary around the altar into a free farmers’ market, opening it to anyone who walked in the door, giving away literally tons of free groceries to as many as 800 hungry families.

The food pantry was led by a gruff ex-con with missing teeth, who organised a hard-working crew of nearly 50 volunteers, mostly misfits and oddballs who’d come to get food. The volunteers were generally poor, and often didn’t get enough to eat during the week; so we liked to make this lunch into a big family meal.

In the grimy, maddeningly small kitchen, Paul and I had been bickering and banging into each other, cursing the dull knives and the broken food-processor. Two of our hotel pans had gone missing; so I’d made the green chile enchiladas in an assortment of cake pans. We ran out of oil. Then the oven rack, which someone had jammed in backwards, fell out as Paul was removing a tray of saffron rice, which spilled everywhere, nearly scalding him.

All morning long, our volunteers had been wandering in to talk, even as, with mounting irritation, I kept shooing them out. A couple of junkies were skulking around, trying, purely out of habit, to get one over on us. A thin schizo­phrenic girl kept hovering, asking me for candles and matches and glasses of water. The sweet middle-school Latino kid who’d been suspended for cutting class wanted to hang out and brag to Paul about his girlfriends, and his mother kept dragging him away.

On the floor, a pallet of potatoes had spilled in front of the icon of the Virgin Mary, and our whole argumentative cadre of head-injured men was quarrelling with a group of developmentally disabled adults over the right way to set up the snack table. “When is lunch going to be ready?” asked the tenth anxious helper, sticking a head into the kitchen.

But I’d interrupted Paul just as he was plating the enchiladas. A young man in a black windcheater had come by, worried about his upcoming visit to his sister and asking for a blessing. “You just always want to put your hands on everybody,” Paul grumbled to me, but he set down his dish towel and leaned close, praying as I rested my hands on the man’s bent head. “Gracious God,” Paul finished, “fill us with the power of Jesus. Amen.”

“Amen,” I said brightly. “Now, let’s serve. Is there another pan of rice? Oh, I forgot to tell you, we’re getting that bunch of kids from Downtown High School for lunch today, too, but I’m sure we’ll have enough for everyone, or you can make more beans.”

“Jesus freak,” Paul said, under his breath.

WHAT does it mean to be a Jesus freak? Or, more to the point, what would it mean to live as if you — and everyone around you — were Jesus, and filled with his power? To just take his teachings literally, go out of the front door of your home, and act on them?

It’s actually pretty straight­forward, Jesus says. Heal the sick. Cast out demons. Cleanse the lepers. You give the people something to eat. You have the authority to forgive sins. Raise the dead. Throughout the Gospels, as he roams through Palestine, these are the commissions Jesus repeatedly hands to the ordinary people around him. You can do this stuff, he tells them. Walk this way. Come and see; don’t be afraid.

I came late to Christianity, knocked upside down by a mid-life conversion centred around a literal chunk of bread. The immediacy of my conversion experience left me perhaps freakily convinced of the presence of Jesus around me. I hadn’t figured out a neat set of “beliefs”, but discovered a force blowing uncontrollably through the world.

I came late to Christianity, knocked upside down by a mid-life conversion centred around a literal chunk of bread. The immediacy of my conversion experience left me perhaps freakily convinced of the presence of Jesus around me. I hadn’t figured out a neat set of “beliefs”, but discovered a force blowing uncontrollably through the world.

EATING Jesus cracked my world open, and made me hunger to keep sharing food with other people. That desire took me to an altar, at St Gregory’s, where I helped break the bread for holy communion, and then to a food pantry that I set up around the same altar, where we gave away free groceries to anyone who showed up.

From all over the city, poor people started to come every Friday to the church — 100, 200, 450, 800 — and, like me, some of them stayed. Soon they began to feed and take care of each other, then run things, then start other pantries. It was my first experience of discovering that regular people could do Jesus’s work.

In the thrilling and difficult years after my first communion, I kept learning that my new Christian identity required me to act. Simply going to church offered no ethereal ju-ju that would automatically turn me into a less smug and self-righteous person. Time and again, I was going to have to forgive people I was mad at, say I was sorry, be honest when I felt petty, and sit down to eat, as Jesus did, with my betrayers and enemies — the mad, the boring, and the merely unlikeable.

As I got pushed deeper into all these relationships, I started to suspect that the body of Christ was not a metaphor at all. “Because there’s one bread,” as St Paul, another poleaxed convert, wrote in astonishment, “we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.”

I found that hard to swallow. Couldn’t I choose whom I wanted to be yoked together with for eternity? And it was nerve-racking. Sooner or later, I was going to have to consider the possibility that feeding wasn’t the only command Jesus intended his one body to take seriously. All of us were also expected to heal, forgive, and raise the dead — not in some lofty symbolic way, but right here.

“I know this sounds nuts,” I said to an old friend, who’d been shocked at my conversion to a faith I’d mocked, and baffled by my sudden urge to give away pallets of lettuce and cereal. “But when we’re all together at the eucharist and at the food pantry, it’s the same thing. Because Jesus is real.”

“I know this sounds nuts,” I said to an old friend, who’d been shocked at my conversion to a faith I’d mocked, and baffled by my sudden urge to give away pallets of lettuce and cereal. “But when we’re all together at the eucharist and at the food pantry, it’s the same thing. Because Jesus is real.”

I WENT to church a lot. I’d moved through panic at the mere idea of sitting in a room full of Christians to a passionate engagement with worship. I encountered the transcendent power of ancient technologies: fire and water and beeswax candles burning all night. I heard the beauty of the unadorned sounds that suffering men and women can call forth when they sing in harmony.

Ignorant of scripture, I began to let King David’s laments, Ezekiel’s rants, and Mark’s wire-service reports of miracles wash over me. I knelt. I smeared ashes on my forehead. I ate the bread of heaven. And, as I sank deeper and deeper into the practice, I began to sense how, even in church, we could follow Jesus — moving from piety to passion, from habit to risk, from law to love.

I had companions, notably Paul Fromberg, a gay priest from Texas, who had emerged from Fuller Seminary, failed heterosexual conversion therapies, and a closeted job at an Episcopal cathedral, with his faith miraculously intact. He praised God aloud without irony, and kept a postcard of Jesus on his desk, next to the pictures of his husband and family.

A big man with a big heart and a big brain, Paul steered me, more or less patiently, through scripture, answering questions as we chopped and cooked. “Did you ever think you’d wind up here?” he’d tease, as I got him to translate a Greek word, or explain the history of the Reformation. “I mean, when you ate that first piece of bread, did you have any clue what you were getting into?”

I DIDN’T exactly study the Bible — that great mongrelised library of stories, books, letters, songs, unfinished manuscripts, polemics, lists, and lost treasures. Rather, I swam in it. I couldn’t read scripture in order to single out one lesson with a beginning, a middle, and an end, or use it to fix a stable doctrine. But in the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the hymns of many traditions, I discovered something of the spaciousness of God’s meaning, and the wildness of God’s sense of time.

And I found that Jesus does not, anywhere in the Gospels, spend too much time calling his people to have feelings, or ideas, or opinions. He calls us to act: hear these words of mine, and act on them. I started to help lead liturgies, and then write liturgies, because I wanted to take the language I found in Christian worship and use it as a blueprint for action in the world.

St Gregory’s had given me room not only to receive but to give. And it allowed me to act as if the stuff we did on Sundays meant something, and was a guide to our whole lives, in church and outside.

Worship and service were parts of a whole; the Friday food pantry and the Sunday eucharist were just different expressions of the same thing. Well-meaning Christian visitors liked to describe the pantry as a “feeding ministry”, but that just seemed like a nervous euphemism to me. What I saw was church: hundreds of people gathering each week around an altar to share food and to thank God.

Worship and service were parts of a whole; the Friday food pantry and the Sunday eucharist were just different expressions of the same thing. Well-meaning Christian visitors liked to describe the pantry as a “feeding ministry”, but that just seemed like a nervous euphemism to me. What I saw was church: hundreds of people gathering each week around an altar to share food and to thank God.

And then, on Sundays, in the very same space, communion. The priest and whoever else was serving that day — a woman with cancer, a fussy older guy, a serene, angelic seven-year-old boy in shorts — would lift the plates of fresh bread and cups of wine, and turn, showing the food to the people standing pressed close around the big, round table in the middle of the sanctuary.

YOU never knew who’d be holding the bread. Paul liked to say that “the surest sign of Jesus’s presence in the eucharist is when there’s somebody completely inappropriate at the altar.”

Frequently, that was me. “Jesus welcomes everyone to his table,” I’d announce; “so we offer the bread and wine which are Christ’s body and blood to everyone, without exception.” There was no altar rail or line; so we’d head out into the crowd, carrying communion to clergy and teenagers, old ladies, Jews and baptised Christians, random visitors. “The body of Christ,” I’d say, looking each person in the eyes and handing each person Jesus. And time would stop, over and over and over. This thing is real.

On Fridays, at the food pantry, I’d get the same overwhelming sense of truth, of being part of something bigger than my own likes, or dislikes, or imagination. I watched the concrete, earthy body of Christ take form in pushy Chinese grandmothers, thieving heroin addicts, and weepy transsexuals who came to get food and then wound up feeding others. I watched myself, and the people around me, start to change.

“Coming here made the biggest difference in my life,” admitted Blanca, one of the volunteers, when she told me how she wound up serving at the pantry. “I was newly sober. The world was raw to me, and I was raw to people.” Her long soft hair was falling out of a bun, and she poked it back in place, looking at me intently.

“In six years’ working here, I’ve learned to be a little more of a team player and less the big-mouth,” she said, quietly. “Now, I yell but then say I’m sorry. We’re learning to how be with each other.”

None of it was easy. As one friend said, ruefully, when I complained about a filthy, hostile visitor to the pantry, whom I kept wanting to bounce: “Sara, if you want to see God, sometimes you have to sit in the smoking section.”

I was standing at the bus stop across from the church one Friday, as the food pantry was winding down, talking to Miss Lola Brown. A tiny, elderly black lady with sensible shoes and bent, arthritic hands, she was shaking her head in despair because she didn’t know how to get her groceries across town to her apartment. “I can’t even lift this,” she said, pointing to the teetering shopping cart, filled to overflowing with potatoes, cans of beans, and some exuberant heads of lettuce.

I was exasperated. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have money to give her for a cab. I had to be somewhere else in a little while. I looked at the man standing next to us, a big, quite psychotic white guy, a ranter, who’d also just been at the pantry. “OK, we’ll help you,” I said, not very nicely. I had no idea how. And then the bus pulled up, and the man shuffled forward, muttering, and the two of us lugged her cart on board.

Miss Brown smiled, and raised her hand to heaven. “I know,” she testified. “I know the Lord will always send me help.”

I told that to my wife, Martha, when I got home, and she rolled her eyes. “Couldn’t the Lord send her a taxi at least, if he’s got all that power to help?” she asked. “Instead of a crazy guy and some feeble middle-aged lady, and she’s still got to take the 22 Fillmore for an hour?” “Nah,” I said. “Jesus has a sense of humour. He just sends us.”

God doesn’t look for the most “religious”, the most doctrinally correct, or, for that matter, the smartest of his beloved people to build his Kingdom, but hands over authority to anyone willing to suspend self-doubt and simply trust Jesus’s faith in us. All it takes to be a Jesus freak is to follow him.

Jesus Freak: Feeding, healing, raising the dead by Sara Miles (Canterbury Press, £9.99 (CT Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-84825123-6).

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