“I know that there are a lot of Christians who don’t think I ought to be allowed into the club. Luckily, Christianity is not a club.”
Sara Miles, in an interview.
Sara Miles‘ recent book Take This Bread is breathtaking, inspiring, astounding, and so enjoyable that I felt guilty for buying it used. Thoroughly secular, Miles randomly wanders into a church one Sunday and is transformed, not by a sermon or something spiritual, but by something elemental: bread and wine. She walks out with the unblinking assumption that this bread and wine is something to be shared with absolutely everyone, with absolutely no strings attached. So this self-trained restaurant cook, bootstraps journalist and autodidact extraordinaire just jumps in, establishing a food distribution program right from the altar of her church. She plunges into the mystery of faith by giving stuff away, again and again. And when too much money is donated to her program (in 25, 50, and 250 thousand-dollar increments!) she simply opens other food pantries throughout her city.
Miles’ mastery of writing is remarkable from start to finish. She structures the book by starting with this watershed moment at the Eucharist table, then working back through her history to tell her story. But her recollections of childhood, cooking in NYC kitchens, traveling through war zones, and writing about all of it are much more than vivid recollections, and more than foreshadowing. They are the reasons for her completely pragmatic view of life and faith and doubt, and the explanation for why she went right from that first Eucharist to building a large volunteer network to feed people who are hungry and homeless. In this way, Miles offers a gentle critique of churches, which are usually too encumbered by beauracracies to do anything, no matter how badly they might want to.
Even so, the real power of the book is her indirect elucidation of her own assumptive, determined, and even belligerent pursuit of her personal mission to feed people. And, though her efforts are wildly successful, this is not a triumphalistic story, but a humble realization of her own tendency toward hegemony. She writes subtly and powerfully of the challenges of community, wisely confessing her own demandingness, selfishness, and unconscious desire to marginalize other Christians, even (especially?) as she is fulfilling such an important mission to those outside the church. It is a fascinating exploration of what it means to do community and to truly submit to one another, and to live for the sake of ‘the outsider’.
Like many people I know, hers is a story of a thoroughly pragmatic person who has just one mystical experience and is thereby converted. But she’s not converted away from pragmatism or rationality– oh, no! Rather, she becomes even more pragmatic in her assessment of doctrine and theology and creed, opting instead for action (she is certainly intelligent and capable enough to pursue formal study of theology and ecclesiology, but she simply sees no reason to do so). Folks like these barely raise an eyebrow as the rest of us sip our beverages and discuss the nuances of faith vs. works. “What the fuck is faith? Faith is what I do, or should be!” Which is good news, indeed, and a long time coming. As more and more folks like this get their calling from the Holy Spirit, it’s a new day for the church, and a new and hopeful day for Christianity.