|The San Francisco Chronicle interviews Sara Miles|
"I know that there are a lot of Christians who don't think I ought to be allowed in the club. Luckily, Christianity is not a club."
FINDING MY RELIGION
How San Francisco writer, activist and lifelong atheist Sara Miles unexpectedly found God
David Ian Miller
Monday, February 26, 2007
What makes God laugh? According to a much-quoted saying, it's people making plans.
God probably had a few good giggles over Sara Miles' conversion. The San Francisco writer and former restaurant cook was a happy atheist, a probing journalist who covered wars and revolutions in Central America -- and a woman married to another woman. She certainly didn't intend to become a Christian or -- as she describes it -- "a religious nut." But early one morning she ambled into St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church on Potrero Hill, took Communion and her life changed. That day Miles found both God and her life's mission: feeding the hungry.
Miles, a former editor at Mother Jones magazine and the founder of St. Gregory's Food Pantry, documents her conversion in "Take This Bread" (Ballantine Books, Feb. 2007). More than a spiritual memoir, the book details her experiences starting and running food pantries, a process that she says causes her to occasionally "cross the line from self-righteous do-gooder to crusading zealot." I spoke with her by phone last week about faith, food and her vision of Christianity as a religion that's inclusive, activist and ever evolving.
Has becoming a Christian changed your life? Are you a different person now or basically the same person as you were before?
I'm screwed up in different ways. I've traded one set of neurotic obsessions for another, I think. But you would probably have to ask the people around me. I think it has made me less certain, more willing to be surprised and more open to the idea that the unexpected can happen. And I think it's made me more interested in other people, even the ones who I don't necessarily like or have a lot in common with.
What has surprised you the most about being a Christian?
That's a really hard question. There are some obvious answers, like I never expected waking up before dawn in order to kneel on the floor with ashes on my forehead for Ash Wednesday, then preach a sermon about death and sin for Lent. That was not in my career plans. I didn't expect that I would be praying over someone as they died. I didn't think that I would be able to say "God bless you" aloud to somebody. And I also think that I didn't expect how profoundly fine it is to understand yourself as not at the center of the world.
Fine? That's a very benign word, isn't it?
Yeah! Because I think beyond the sort of moments of ecstasy or religious inspiration or perfect joy or perfect despair, there is an equanimity that I feel able to tap into, understanding that my own self is not actually the center of the world, which I really appreciate.
In your book you describe your conversion to Christianity as "terribly inconvenient." How so?
It was inconvenient because I hadn't been raised as a Christian. I had a lot of disdain for Christians, the sort of litany of complaints that people often make about the bigotry of the church, its narrow-mindedness, its collusion with empire, its willingness to impose its received wisdom on everybody else. This was particularly true for me as a woman and a gay person. And so I stayed away.
Conversion wasn't what I was planning to have happen. I liked my life just fine. I wasn't searching for a new one.
You tell the story of being a lifelong atheist until one morning you walked into St. Gregory's Church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine and apparently were converted on the spot. Is that really how it happened?
Well, I think that my faith certainly became explicit in that moment, but it continues to change and deepen. Conversion is an ongoing process. I don't believe in those "I once was blind, and now I see" moments.
Why did you walk into that church if you weren't even interested in religion?
I was curious. You know, I'm a reporter, and it's a big, beautiful, wooden-shingled building. And it has this gorgeous mosaic icon outside and a sign that says, "All That Is Prays to You." You walk inside and you are struck by this huge mural of dancing saints, only the saints are people like Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez. It's very surprising.
Not the sort of church you would find in middle America, is it?
Well, yes and no. One of the things that I've come to understand is that aesthetics and theology aren't the same thing. There are plenty of things about St. Gregory's that are like the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and there are plenty of things that are like a Lutheran church in Kansas.
I think the most important thing for me about St. Gregory's is the practice and the theology of open Communion, which says basically that the altar does not belong to the church. The altar is God's, and everybody is welcome. It is not up to the church to say, "You don't deserve Communion, because you're not baptized or you're gay or you're divorced or you're a child."
The church doesn't own Communion. It's God's meal. That made it possible for me to even take Communion in the first place. It also made it possible for me to look at the church not as a way to divide people from each other, but as a way of joining people together.
One of the questions you raised in the book is "Why would any thinking person become a Christian?" First, I'm going to ask you why you even felt the need to pose that question. I don't think someone would ask the same question of a Jew or a Buddhist or a Hindu or a pagan.
There are a lot of secular people who are raised to doubt any knowledge that can't be proved through a scientific paradigm. That's why I asked that question in the book. But one could ask that same question for other religions as well.
Now I'll ask you for the answer to the question, "Why would any thinking person become a Christian now?"
I'm not going to give the answer for why anybody else should be a Christian, but I will say why I became a Christian. I believe the story of Christianity is true. It is true beyond facts and literalism, and it's true beyond logic. As a journalist, it was surprising for me to use a different set of tools -- the eyes of faith -- to understand the world. Belief turned out to be the least important part of faith. For me, the most interesting part of faith has been doubt, not knowing, being willing to look at the universe with a different perspective.
Why is doubt interesting?
It's interesting to not be in complete control of the narrative, to not know how the story turns out. I believe that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the world, that God's truth was not revealed once and for all at a single historical moment and now it's just a matter of cracking the code. Listening for the stirrings of God on earth, watching for God's presence among us, means asking questions, doubting, praying. It means listening to others' experiences with the kind of humility that is painfully lacking in much religion.
You are married to a woman who you've been with for almost 14 years. How do you reconcile Christian teachings that oppose same-sex relationships with your own beliefs as a Christian?
Which Christian teachings? I think it's kind of simple to say that the Bible says this or that thing is good or bad. The Bible is a collection of documents that is remade every time somebody reads it. And Christianity is a religion that over the centuries has adapted to incredibly different cultures, so people reinterpret and reinterpret and reinterpret [the Bible]. I also don't feel like once the last pages of the King James Bible were assembled that God stopped talking to Christians. The conversation between God and the church is not finished.
That said, as a practical matter you've got the Anglican Church this week saying that gay marriage is a sin for Episcopalians in this country. Presumably that includes those at St. Gregory's Church.
I think that there is a powerful tendency in Christianity, as in all religions, to scapegoat people and define yourself by who you are not. The people who are trying to get rid of gay unions are the same people who were enraged over the idea that women could be ordained. They are the people who are enraged that if you are divorced you can be remarried in the church. Once you start to exclude people because they are the bad ones, you are doing the kind of scapegoating that in my view Jesus exists to overthrow. And I think it's sad. And I also think it won't stand.
I want to talk to you about the sacrament of Communion, which has been particularly important in your life. What about taking Communion moves you so much?
In one gesture it sort of sums up the craziness and beauty of human life, which is that you are a soul in a piece of meat, you know? You are a soul in a body. You are bound to other bodies by the fact of your body, by eating and drinking, which are among the most basic human functions. And yet you are also a soul.
The other thing about Communion is that you cannot have it by yourself. Christianity is not a solitary practice, and Communion by definition is about being with others. For me, that is at the heart of what the religion teaches. We need each other.
What is the connection between Communion and your decision to start feeding the hungry in San Francisco?
The connection is literal. I walked into this church. I was a stranger. I had, if anything, only the rudest thoughts about the people who were welcoming me. I got fed, and my life got changed. And I thought, I want to keep doing this for other people. So I began setting up these food pantries with the San Francisco Food Bank. Last week, we served 450 families. I think we gave away about six tons of food on Friday.
How is the food pantry at St. Gregory's different from other places where the hungry can get food?
It's run by the hungry. It's run by people who, like me, wanted to be a part of something. What has happened to them is what happened to me, not in the sense of a conversion to Christian doctrine but in the sense that they came to get food and stayed to help out. It wasn't enough for them just to receive.
What kind of food are you giving away? You are someone who worked in restaurants for years, so you appreciate attention to food and its preparation.
We give away groceries. We give away fresh food. We put up all these tables around the altar so that the entire sanctuary of the church looks like this fabulous farmers' market in heaven. There are icons and candles burning and flowers and beautiful altar cloths, and piles of Cheerios and potatoes and fresh vegetables and rice and beans.
In the book, you write that San Francisco is perhaps the most food-obsessed place on the planet. Does that make people more or less likely to notice that others are hungry, too?
I think they don't see who they are. They don't understand that it's people who have jobs or it's the elderly. When you talk about hungry people in San Francisco, people think, "Oh, that's that crazy homeless guy who is living under the bridge." And certainly we feed those people, too. But most of the hungry people in San Francisco statistically turn out to be women and their kids. And most of the people that we feed at the pantry are working people or the elderly. That's because the housing costs are so insane that it takes two full-time minimum-wage jobs to pay the rent on a one-bedroom apartment, and you don't have enough left over for food.
St. Gregory's Food Pantry has provided start-up money, training and inspiration to help launch 11 other food pantries. What are the most important things that you have learned about ensuring projects like this are successful?
The main thing is to emphasize that it's not just a social service project. It's about empowering the people who come to get food to run the program themselves.
People often talk about a divide in this country between the secular left and the religious right. Where do you fall in that scheme?
I know that there are a lot of Christians who don't think I ought to be allowed in the club. Luckily, Christianity is not a club. It is, as my favorite patriarchal, misogynist, homophobic apostle -- St. Paul -- said, a body. "There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female anymore. For you are all one in Jesus Christ." What counts is not who you are. Your human status is not the point.