Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Take This Bread (Sara Miles)

If you’re looking for something to read that will challenge the religiosity of many Christian denominations, and the formula that congregations follow, then grasp Sara Miles’ book, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, firmly with both hands.
“... 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.”
To borrow from CS Lewis, Sara was “surprised by joy” when she was unexpectedly welcomed to participate in that first communion service at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco.
“Jesus invites everyone to his table.”
Coming from a background as a chef and a journalist (with an interest in revolutionary war zones), she was gripped by the “food and bodies” that the sacrament united, and attracted to a faith offering “food without exception to the worthy and unworthy, the screwed-up and pious”.

It resonated with her experience as a journalist travelling through remote areas of El Salvador and South Africa: strangers, comrades and even enemies had offered her food. Everyone had hunger in common.
“There was the immediacy of communion at St Gregory’s, unmediated by altar rails, the raw physicality of that mystical meal. There was an invitation to jump in rather than official entrance requirements.”
Now open communion won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. St. Gregory’s isn’t entirely typical of all Episcopal parishes. But the effect of that inclusion is challenging as Sara explains what happened next.

Sara’s experience of Eucharist led her to petition St. Gregory’s to allow her to start up a weekly food pantry. But unlike other pantries across the Bay Area that required registration and social security numbers, everyone was invited to St. Gregory’s table. After all Jesus didn’t say “Feed my sheep after you check their ID”.

Taking food from the San Francisco Food Bank, a non-profit warehouse that collects surplus food—non-perishable goods and fresh produce—from growers, grocers and manufacturers, Sara’s team of helpers split it up between the 20, then 50, then 250 people who started coming once a week to the doors of the church.

Yet selling the idea of extending the open communion table from a Sunday morning to a Friday morning—using the same precious round communion table that had a loaf sitting on it at the weekend to hold staple goods for the pantry—had been an uphill struggle. Even as the pantry became a regular part of the church week, the number of helpers from outside St Gregory’s always far outnumbered her fellow parishioners who signed up to assist.

Another worshipper, a Jesuit priest, pointed out that Sara “was hardly the first person to get excited about Jesus, then disappointed in his church”. But Sara writes about the desperation that she felt:
“Echoing everything that was wrong with churches and church politics, repeating in microcosm the ugliness of Christianity through the ages, I started to fight fiercely with the people I was supposed to be in communion with, struggling to institutionalize my own dogma, and generally hounded people in the name of the Lord ... Hadn’t we announced that welcoming strangers was at the heart of our mission? How could people cling to their comforting, cozy services, rejecting changes and newness?”
Cries of too much change, and too little change, ring out through parish councils and church committee meetings. Does the Bible have anything proscriptive to say about the level of change that people should tolerate before complaining? I think the worked examples within tend towards people volunteering to undergo total transformation with little warning. That about covers it.

There’s a brief mention of the ordination of Gene Robinson. a seminary friend of Donald Schell, Sara’s priest. While her analysis of the conflict inside the Anglican Communion may not be extensive or complete ...
“It wasn’t just about gayness, of course, but a more fundamental conflict between believers who craved certainty and those who embraced ambiguity; those who insisted Scripture was inerrant and unchanging, given once and for all time, and those who believed that the Bible was only part of God’s continuing revolution.”
... but neatly sums up one slice through the current Anglican rift.

In all, it’s a fascinating book, documenting Sara’s spiritual and culinary journey. A book that challenges our reluctance to fully embrace social action. And at the same time, a book that asks a lot of questions about our well-worn, practised traditions and beliefs. Well worth a read.

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