If I asked you to think of one thing, just one single thing that would convert someone to Christianity, what would you think of? A beautifully concise, compellingly clear argument for the reality of God? A fabulously clever response to the objections of atheists such as Richard Dawkins? A knock-you-off-your-feet spiritual experience? The long and deep friendship with a particularly saintly Christian? A welcoming, vibrant church family waiting with open arms? Maybe we could do with more of all these sorts of things, but for one American woman, what slowly but surely turned her from non-religious secularism to a living Christian faith which went on to re-shape her entire life wasn’t words, religious experiences or the influence of other people, but walking into church one Sunday morning and receiving communion. She describes the moment like this:
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 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.
This ‘thoroughly secular life’ had involved travel to Nicaragua, El Salvador, South Africa and the Philippines, where Sara Miles worked as a peace activist and strategist, war journalist and researcher. She writes: ‘writing about and living in…wars absorbed me completely….what I learned…informs what I now call my Christianity. It was a feeling of total community with others, whether or not I like them, through the common fact of our mortal bodies. We all had bodies that could suffer and be killed…In war, I looked at other, different people and saw them, face to face.’ The daughter of parents who had rejected their own parents’ fervent Christianity and missionary callings, Miles had grown up in an almost completely a-religious, socially and politically liberal household and community; she says that her parents ‘taught her how good it tasted to escape convention’ and encouraged each of their children to find their own passions in life, to adventure and experiment. What they didn’t anticipate was this adventuring and experimenting would eventually lead their daughter back to the faith which they themselves had given up, and which was the one thing they had subsequently opposed, the one exploration they did not encourage.
So it was surprising that Miles’ Sunday morning stroll took her into a church; more surprising still that the church into which she wandered was a particularly innovative, diverse and creative Episcopal church, St Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco, a church which, as she puts it, ‘believed in the absolute religious value of welcoming people who didn’t belong’. For someone who describes herself as ‘a very unlikely convert: a blue-state, secular intellectual; a lesbian; a left-wing journalist with a habit of scepticism’, she couldn’t have chosen a church more suited to her.
She recalls her first experience of receiving communion at St Gregory’s: ‘I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as though I had just stepped off a curb or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind…yet that impossible word, Jesus, lodged in me like a crumb.’ In the coming weeks, the pull back to St Gregory’s was strong: ‘It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger.’ Becoming a Christian was a confusing and destabilising experience for Miles; one of her friends described the period of her conversion as her ‘deer in the headlights’ phase. ‘Back then’, she writes, ‘I thought ‘believers’ were people who knew exactly what they believed and had nailed all the answers.’
She had plenty of questions, and was faced with more questions still from her ‘cynical, hilarious, overeducated’ friends who called her to account for the many shortcomings in American Christianity; one activist lawyer described Christianity as ‘the most reactionary force in the world, anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobic…[itemising] the Vatican, the Crusades, Jerry Falwell, [and] child-molesting priests’. Despite all this, Miles writes that ‘the Christianity that called to me, through the stories I read in the Bible, scattered the proud and rebuked the powerful. It was a religion in which divinity was revealed by scars on flesh…in which the hungry were filled with good things, and the rich sent out empty; in which new life was manifested through a humiliated, hungry woman and an empty, tortured man.’
In this new faith, the themes of hunger and being fed with the body of Christ became powerfully meaningful. Alongside her writing and peace activism, Miles had long worked in restaurants and found a love of cooking. So it’s not surprising that it was Jesus the bread of life that drew her to faith. She quotes the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams; ‘it’s the really hungry who can smell fresh bread a mile away. For those who know their need, God is immediate – not an idea, not a theory, but life, food, air for the stifled spirit and the beaten, despised, exploited body.’ And as Miles discovered, ‘it turned out that the pre-requisite for conversion wasn’t knowing how to behave in a church, or having a religious vocabulary or an a priori ‘belief’ in an abstract set of propositions: It was hunger, the same hunger I’d always carried.’
It’s not that surprising, either, that with her background in food, her new life at St Gregory’s, a church committed to ‘hospitality to strangers’, and her keen awareness for social justice, Miles’ faith would lead not only to her being fed by Jesus the bread of life but also to her sharing food with others.
As she got to know her city, San Francisco, she saw that although it is a sophisticated place of foodie delights, in many, less privileged areas of the city, access to decent food was very limited indeed; as she says, ‘in the ghettos, it seemed easier to buy drugs than to find a fresh tomato.’ A fund-raising letter from the San Francisco Food Bank which prompted Miles into action estimated that over 90,000 people in San Francisco, mainly children and women, had barely enough food to stave off hunger. Amidst this backdrop, Miles was struck by the story of Jesus’ instructing Peter to ‘feed my sheep.’ She writes: ‘It seemed pretty clear. If I wanted to see God, I could feed people.’
The story of Jesus’ words to Peter were ringing in Miles’ ears as she hesitantly phoned the San Francisco Food Bank, introduced herself as being from St Gregory’s Church and asked to talk to someone about starting a food pantry.
It was a great idea. But, like Miles’ own conversion to Christianity, didn’t go as smoothly as all that. One church member asked angrily ‘Has anyone spoken up to say this project is an insane waste?’ Another added ‘We can’t keep the church picked up and the kitchen clean as it is.’ Miles put all her negotiating and peace-mediation skills to use in convincing members of St Gregory’s that being fed is at the heart of Christianity; ‘we do it now on Sundays’, she wrote in an open letter to the church. ‘I believe we can do it one more time each week – gathered around the Table….handing bags full of macaroni and peanut butter to strangers, in remembrance of him.’
It’s not surprising, probably, that the people of St Gregory’s were slightly wary of this scheme. It was deliberately unregulated, requiring no showing of ID to get food, as other food banks did. The commitment to ‘hospitality to strangers’ meant that anyone could turn up, with or without ID, every Friday. AS Miles remembers, ‘it was a different set of ‘everyone’ than I saw at church on Sundays’, all sorts of people in all sorts of states, all compelled by their hunger. As they queued, they would ask, ‘Will you pray for me?’, and they would offer one another prayer and insight. What they came for was food which Miles and others bought for pennies at warehouses, vast surpluses due to American agricultural policy. A prayer was composed for the food pantry:
O God of abundance, you feed us every day.
Rise in us now, make us into your bread,
That we may share your gifts with a hungry world
And join in love with all people,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Ironically, amidst all the busy-ness of setting up and staffing the Food Pantry, Miles realised that the volunteers who gave up their time for this project were barely eating between serving others. So the Friday Food Pantry started with a decent sit-down meal for volunteers, and the sense of fellowship grew. The Friday food pantry extended into Sunday afternoons where, after the church’s main service, the altar would be transformed into a food store, and then transformed back in time for a late afternoon Eucharist, with the occasional latecomer turning up seeking food during worship. I contacted Sara Miles, who is now employed by St Gregory’s to grow this work further, and told her that I was going to share her story with you, and received a warm response.
So why does this particular surprising convert appeal to me? Well, a while ago my parents said that wherever I live, I always have a knack of finding the churches with the best food. When I look back over my life, I’ve been involved with various churches and it’s true – whatever else might be different about them, they’ve all known how to eat well together. It’ been in eating together that I’ve learnt how to be a disciple of Jesus; this eating together goes right back to Jesus and his first disciples.
Not only that, but the need to share food with others beyond our church congregations is becoming pressing in these austere times. Food Banks have sprung up all over the UK – there is one in Welwyn Garden City – and you don’t have to look far at all to hear stories of real poverty here in the UK, of parents not eating so that their children can, of a £14 food budget for a week.
The issues involved are complex, and the solutions not always easy, but this should be a concern for us as Christians, especially those of us who are fortunate enough not to have to worry about where the next meal is going to come from. This surprising convert appeals to me because her story makes it clear that being converted – being turned to Christ – means a changed life, means serving others as we are served ourselves.
Finally, this surprising convert appeals to me because of her deep sense of Holy Communion as the one act of worship that draws together all the strands of our lives and all of our lives together in the reality of Christ present among us and in us. I read her book on my retreat just before my ordination as priest, just before I celebrated the Eucharist for the first time, and I found it to be an inspiring account of the holiness of what happens when we receive Christ in bread and wine. She says: ‘it may seem deluded to assert that people can still be fed with this ordinary yet mystical bread, so besmirched and exhausted and poisoned by centuries of religious practice, in ways that will change our own real lives, not to mention the world, for the better. But this is my belief: that at the heart of Christianity is a power that continues to speak to and transform us….as the Bible says, Taste and See.’