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They did all eat, and were filled

07 September 2012

Meryl Doney enjoys Take This Bread by Sara Miles

I HAVE had many good moments in church, but one of the best was the Christmas meal we cooked for the congregation of about 70 at our church in north London. The kitchens were inadequate, the seating haphazard, and the décor eclectic. As the oven wasn't big enough, we resorted to running down the road to a parishioner's flat with trays of roast potatoes. But the joy of serving as lavish a lunch as we could man­age, to that community, was a high point for me.

This book brought back that vivid memory, and earlier ones, too: the exhaustion of feeding large numbers of students, under canvas, in a field kitchen at the Keswick Convention; 60 resident workers for Sunday lunch at the Mayflower Family Centre in East Ham; ad hoc com­munion services round our kitchen table as part of our home group. They were all heightened experi­ences of hard work, but great reward.

Food and feeding people are at the heart of this compelling book. The desire for physical and spiritual nourishment drives Sara Miles to find God, and, ultimately, to change the course of her life. But this is no clichéd conversion.

Miles is a writer and journalist by trade. Take This Bread is beautifully written, and a page-turner. It is her story - and what a story she has to tell.

Both sets of her grandparents were missionaries, one in Burma and the other in Baghdad. Unchar­acteristically for the times, they were radical in their views, and on their return to the United States became active in the Civil Rights Movement. In contrast, Miles's parents were atheists, but still had a radical agenda. Her brother David, a chef, adds the other vital ingredient to the mix.

Miles's early radicalism and her hunger for the truth took her first to Mexico, where she enrolled in a radical college founded by Quakers and Communists. On her return, she threw herself into a series of social projects, finally settling on writing as her means of expression. Her need to earn money led to a formative spell as a cook in various restaurants, finally working with her brother in New York.

From there, travelling via Nic­aragua as a researcher, she spent most of the 1980s as a war cor­respondent in Central America and South Africa. She paired off with Bob, another journalist, and became pregnant with their daughter Katie. After a frightening brush with death in El Salvador, she left the country, expecting to return later. Instead, she settled in San Francisco. Bob left her, coming out as a gay man, and she met her long-term partner Martha. In this period she was, she admits, nearly happy.

Then came a life-changing event. "One early, cloudy morning when I was 46, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans - except that up until that moment, I'd led a thoroughly secular life, at best in­different to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist cru­sades. This was my first com­munion. It changed everything."

The church was St Gregory's, already a remarkably innovative and inclusive community in San Fran­cisco. As the story unfolds, this un­likely convert has to come to terms with theology, liturgy, church poli­tics, the rise of the Christian Right, 9/11, President Bush's war on terror, and, above all, the grinding poverty in downtown San Francisco. Her response is typically radical. She teams up with a local food-bank movement, and declares: "We will feed people - from the altar of the church."

The story of this experiment, the people, and the challenges, is told in a way that is earthed and compelling. The practicalities of the project raise so many issues: prayer, miracles, the priesthood, who can receive com­munion, the rite of baptism, lay leadership, gay marriage, and the balance of family and church com­mitments, among others. Most prob­lematic of all for the congrega­tion of St Gregory's, it would seem, was the disruption of the sacrosanct peace and beauty of Sunday worship.

The language is at times realist­ically "industrial", so some groups might need a health-and-safety warn­ing - although it is nothing that you couldn't hear in any play­ground. It certainly adds to the authenticity of Miles's story.

The book ends with a moving encounter between Miles and her mother, a vision of healing and reconciliation, and the image of heaven as a banquet. The spirit of generosity and inclusivity, which should be the mark of a Christian com­munity, shines from the nar­rative. But this is no hippy dream. It is a vision earthed in a broad grasp of theology, and a healthy dose of realism about the world as it is. It's a good feed.

Meryl Doney is a writer and freelance fine-art curator.
Take This Bread by Sara Miles (Back-page interview, 28 July 2010; Feature, 27 January) is published by Canterbury Press at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-1-84825-214-1.




There are more questions for groups in the back of this book.

With whom did you identify - Sara Miles or the people of St Gregory's - when Sunday opening of the pantry was suggested?

Is it more important to make the church building a hallowed space, or to invite the poor and make them feel at home?

Rick, one of the priests at St Gregory's, argued in a paper that "Churches faithful to Jesus should offer communion to strangers first, before converting or baptising them." What do you think?

Would a project like the St Gregory's pantry work in your church and community? If not, why not?

What does Miles's experience inspire you to do at your church?

"Faith, for me, isn't an argument, a catechism, a philosophical proof. It is instead a lens, a way of experiencing life, and a willingness to act"
(p. xvi). How similar is your experience to Miles's description?

"I learned how central food is to creating human community, what eating together around a table can do" (p. 23). How does Miles put into practice what she learned from her work as a cook? Can you think of examples from your own life when eating together has helped to form community?

How does Miles's interpretation of what it means to follow Christ differ from, or resonate with, yours?




IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 October, we will print extra information about the next book. This is In the Midst of Life by Jennifer Worth. It is published by Phoenix/ Orion at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-7538-2752-9).

Author notes
Jennifer Worth (née Lee) was born in 1935, in Clacton-on-Sea, and brought up in Amersham. She left school at 14, and later qualified as a nurse at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, before transferring to London for midwifery training, which was followed by a number of years as staff nurse and ward sister in three London hospitals.
 In 1963 she married Philip, and they had two daughters. In 1973, she left nursing, and became a teacher of piano and singing, while also studying music. She has written three other books: Call the Midwife (2002), Shadows of the Workhouse (2005), and Farewell to the East End (2009). The earliest of these was turned into a popular BBC television series in 2011; a second series
is being filmed (Feature, 13 January). Worth died last year, just before the first TV series was made.

Book notes
In the Midst of Life is a book of stories, reflections, arguments, and analysis about death and dying. Speaking from her ex­perience as a nurse, Worth uses real-life stories to explore attitudes towards dying people, and the practicalities of coping with death. She has strong views about end-of-life care, and makes her case for a new approach, while also wishing to retain the best elements of past nursing practice.

Books for the next two months:
November: Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James
December: Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

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