I LIVE in San Francisco, unofficial capital of America's secular
obsession with food. Sometimes I think I'll lose my mind if I hear
anyone say "organic","local", or "artisan" again. Having been
converted to Christianity by communion bread and written a book
about it, I'm even more cynical about the religious values we
assign so glibly to food. Does buying all-organic groceries make
you a better person? Does being careful about how much sugar your
kids consume bring you closer to God? Can kale save?
It's a short step from imagining that your food choices about
humane, sustainable agriculture will justify you, to believing that
other people who don't eat the way you do are living in sin. But
poor immigrant kids eating salty crisps, and white middle-class
social workers eating soy yogurt, and businessmen eating big
industrial slabs of beef - we are all in a state of sin. And food
will not save any one of us.
God will save us.
Yes, contemporary food systems are sick. But our healing and
that of our communities can't come about solely through technical
interventions around agriculture, political campaigns to improve
the quality of the foods we eat, or an anxious focus on organic
cleanliness. Real healing requires communion: that is, sitting down
and eating with others - especially with strangers, and the impure,
as Jesus does.
GREGORY OF NYSSA, the patron saint of my home church, was a bishop
in the fourth century in what is now Turkey. Here are his
strikingly contemporary words on faith and food, from his sermon on
the Lord's Prayer:
"So we say to God: Give us bread. Not delicacies or riches, nor
magnificent purple robes, golden ornaments, and precious stones. .
. We do not say, give us a prominent position in assemblies or
monuments and statues raised to us, nor silken robes and musicians
at meals, nor any other thing by which the soul is estranged from
the thought of God; no - only bread!
"But you go on business to the Indies and venture out upon
strange seas; you go on a voyage every year only to bring back
flavourings for your food, without realising that it is, above all,
a good conscience which makes the bread tasty because it is eaten
"'Give us bread' - that is to say, let me have food through just
labour. For, if God is justice, anyone who procures food for
himself through covetousness cannot have his bread from God. You
are the master of your prayer if your abundance does not come from
another's property, and is not the result of somebody else's tears;
if no one is hungry or distressed because you are fully satisfied.
For the bread of God is, above all, the fruit of justice."
GREGORY'S use of the first person plural is Gospel. Not "give me
bread", but "give us bread". Not "I", but "we". Not "my self", but
Every Friday, at the church named for Gregory of Nyssa, after
singing the Lord's Prayer at the morning service, I go with our
priest Paul Fromberg to shop at the upscale Whole Foods store
around the corner, so we can prepare lunch for the more than 50
volunteers who run our food pantry.
The volunteers come from the streets and slums; they're
foreigners; they're hungry, and poor. They work all day giving away
food to strangers: they unload pallets and set up tables
overflowing with bread; they lift sacks of potatoes and break down
boxes and deal with the public - it's hard work. So Paul and I
always cook a full, hot meal for the volunteers, and everyone
shares it before the pantry opens.
Each week, Paul and I stroll down the aisles of Whole Foods,
arguing about what to cook, and I gaze at the incredible variety:
tiny jars of pink peppercorns, and displays of organic sheep's-milk
cheeses from around the world, and shelves overflowing with 19
varieties of salt. I look at the figs from Spain, and the saffron
from Kashmir, and I hear Gregory sadly saying:
"But you go on business to the Indies and . . . go on a voyage
every year only to bring back flavourings for your food, without
realising that it is above all a good conscience which makes the
bread tasty because it is eaten in justice."
Of course, I love flavourings from the Indies, too, and
delicacies and riches, and cooking big splashy meals. But sometimes
the excess makes me nervous: it's not what food is for.
ONE DAY I noticed Paul had picked up special expensive supplies to
make a three-layer cake; then, while I was busy with the soup, he
made a complicated meringue-based icing; and while I was rushing to
get the casserole in the oven, he began decorating the whole thing
with crushed praline dust and beautiful little pastry-cream
"What's up?" I asked, kind-of-irritated that Paul was taking so
long fussing with decorations when we had 50 hungry people waiting
for lunch. Paul shrugged. "Somebody told me it was Matthew's
birthday," he said. Matthew, who works unpaid 20 hours a week as
the director of operations for the food pantry, is an undocumented
Irish immigrant without a bank account; a former heroin addict who
got clean in prison. He's impossibly generous: he barks gruffly at
everyone, but then gives away the food he gets from the pantry.
Matthew has missing teeth and homemade tattoos and would probably
set off security alarms at Whole Foods.
God, Gregory of Nyssa wrote, desires relationship with us; and
we desire relationship with God, and with other humans. This is
what food is for. Paul stood back and admired his handiwork. "You
know, when Matthew was in jail," Paul said quietly, "I bet he never
imagined anyone would bake him a birthday cake again. So I wanted
to make it special."
WHAT makes our bread tasty? The love of God, which is the love of
all God's people. And so we say to God: "Give us bread."
Gregory, down the years, teaches that faith is not abstract, but
requires us to act - that our faith has material as well as
philosophical consequences. We say over and over in church that we
are the body of Christ. Yet if one part of the body enjoys
flavourings from the Indies while another part is starving, then
that body is sick.
And what can possibly heal us? Bread. The simplest loaf or the
fanciest pink birthday cake, if it is eaten together in justice.
Not justice in the sense we mean when we reduce social justice to
an "issue" - the formulaic justice of this world - but overflowing
justice, based on the undivided life of God.
So give us that bread, we pray, which transforms us, as we share
it with others, into one body.
Sara Miles is the founder and director of The Food
Pantry, and author of Take This Bread: A radical