Sara Miles Interview

Notes from San Francisco

Gary Percesepe

One day, Sara Miles walked into church and received com­mu­nion at the altar. Not remark­able, except for the fact that at the time Sara Miles was a les­bian left-wing athe­ist, a war cor­re­spon­dent schooled in skep­ti­cism and scorn­ful of faith (par­tic­u­lar­ly its right-wing expres­sion, with its reli­gious prac­tices that exclud­ed peo­ple like her and kept them away from the altar). Sara Miles was “the wrong kind” of per­son to receive com­mu­nion in a church. What hap­pened next was aston­ish­ing. She ate a piece of bread, tast­ed a sip of wine, and found her­self rad­i­cal­ly trans­formed. As she tells the sto­ry in her mem­oir, Take This Bread (2007), she was hungry—hungry in every imag­in­able way– and she found communion.

Sara Miles stayed at the church, even­tu­al­ly becom­ing some­thing called “Director of Ministry”—a far cry, per­haps,  from what George W. Bush had in mind when he set up an office for faith-based char­i­ties in the White House, to shore up the sup­port of his “base”– but equal­ly unimag­in­able for lib­er­als with dis­dain for the Christian faith. Sara Miles defies labels. She wants to feed peo­ple. The Food Pantry which she orga­nized at Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church on Protrero Hill, does just that, with a kind of impro­vised, mad­cap glee every Friday after­noon. At the very table where she first received com­mu­nion, Sara Miles and a team of vol­un­teers now serve free food to hun­gry peo­ple, no ques­tions asked, who come by the hun­dreds every Friday. Poor, elder­ly, sick, deranged, mar­gin­al­ized, invis­i­ble to many, they come on Friday, form a line out­side, and are wel­comed to the table with extrav­a­gant hos­pi­tal­i­ty. Under the beau­ti­ful wood­en ceil­ing and above the altar, two cir­cles of larg­er than life saints dance on the walls.  Incense burns, can­dles are lit. And under the smil­ing faces of the danc­ing saints—John Coltrane, Anne Frank, and Charles Darwin among them —the peo­ple of San Francisco come to be fed. They leave with their bags and purs­es filled to the brim with fresh food—fruit, veg­eta­bles, let­tuce, peanut but­ter, pota­toes, rice, beans, cere­al, bread, you name it– served by car­ing peo­ple, most of whom are recip­i­ents them­selves. Sara Miles has helped oth­ers start food like this all around San Francisco. On any giv­en Friday, the food pantry at Saint Gregory’s will give away as much as six tons of food.

It’s Christmastime, and thoughts turn to the most famous poor child in his­to­ry. But who was Jesus, real­ly? I’ve known some of the founders of the “Jesus Seminar,” whose quest for the his­tor­i­cal Jesus con­tin­ues. Jesus schol­ars tell us that one of the best attest­ed facts about this Jewish Mediterranean peas­ant, who ran afoul of the reli­gious author­i­ties and was exe­cut­ed for his trou­bles, was that he prac­ticed free heal­ing and gave away free food. I promised myself that one day I would trav­el to San Francisco, look up Sara Miles, and vol­un­teer at the Food Pantry at Saint Gregory of Nyssa.

Not long ago, I final­ly did.


Sara Miles, wel­come to New World Writing

Looking back on your jour­ney, and the path that led you to the altar that first day, what stands out for you today?

It’s always tempt­ing to look back and cre­ate a neater, more coher­ent nar­ra­tive… con­ver­sion sto­ries are sup­posed to fol­low a pre­dictable jour­ney to an inevitable hap­py out­come: lost to found. But I think what stands out for me most are the moments of extreme lost­ness and con­fu­sion I expe­ri­enced when I first began to sense God: it was over­whelm­ing, fright­en­ing, uncomfortable.

When I vis­it­ed, the peo­ple who came for food looked most­ly Chinese. What changes have you noticed over the years in the pop­u­la­tion that comes to be fed, and what has remained large­ly the same?

The peo­ple who come to the pantry rep­re­sent all kinds of poor peo­ple in the city. The demo­graph­ics change all the time, but we always see a lot of seniors on fixed incomes; dis­abled peo­ple liv­ing on SSI; low-wage work­ers and the unem­ployed; home­less and mar­gin­al­ly housed peo­ple; sin­gle par­ents and big immi­grant fam­i­lies. We used to get more Russians and Central Americans; now we have more Chinese fam­i­lies, but there are folks from all over––the pantry hap­pens in about 7 or 8 dif­fer­ent languages.


San Francisco’s always had high hous­ing costs, but the last few years have been insane:  the city is strat­i­fy­ing into ultra-rich and very poor, with few work­ing and mid­dle-class fam­i­lies able to afford hous­ing. It’s basi­cal­ly become impos­si­ble for a lot of peo­ple to pay for rent and food. If you’re work­ing for min­i­mum wage, you’d have to work near­ly 80 hours a week just to cov­er the rent on an aver­age 1‑bedroom apart­ment here.


For a long time I’ve want­ed to ask you about the con­nec­tions between char­i­ty and jus­tice in your work. You know that sto­ry about the church pic­nic that is inter­rupt­ed by some­one scream­ing about a baby that is float­ing down the riv­er? So the church folk save the baby. Then anoth­er baby floats by, and they save it. Pretty soon the church is orga­niz­ing the care and feed­ing of these babies, because riv­er is filled with babies, now, and it is tax­ing the church’s resources and the vol­un­teers are burn­ing out, and one vol­un­teer final­ly says, “Hey, why don’t we go upstream and fig­ure out who in the hell is throw­ing these babies into the river?”

Well, I don’t real­ly think we’re doing char­i­ty or jus­tice, as most church­es tend to under­stand and prac­tice those terms. The Food Pantry is not a social ser­vice program–identifying needs and meet­ing them char­i­ta­bly. It’s not an advo­ca­cy pro­gram— iden­ti­fy­ing polit­i­cal prob­lems and and advo­cat­ing for solu­tions. It’s church: we’re a place where peo­ple come to be fed and are changed. It’s a Eucharistic com­mu­ni­ty open to Christians and non-Christians alike. The Food Pantry isn’t run by church peo­ple for the poor. It’s run by poor peo­ple for each other.


We give away a lot of food, to any­one who shows up, with­out restric­tions; and we try to engage polit­i­cal­ly with our city and state gov­ern­ments and oth­er non­prof­its to increase food secu­ri­ty and access to food. But the inter­est­ing thing for me is how lives, includ­ing my own, are changed by par­tic­i­pat­ing in this work; and how we become a com­mu­ni­ty by work­ing and eat­ing together.
Walter Wink, who was a part of the Jesus Seminar for years, used to tell me that Jesus was so rad­i­cal, so far ahead of his time in his accep­tance and inclu­sion of women and chil­dren, of social out­casts and hat­ed ene­mies, so extrav­a­gant in his hos­pi­tal­i­ty and in his prac­tice of an open table, that if he had not lived it would have been impos­si­ble to invent him. Take This Bread is refresh­ing­ly hon­est in its fre­quent exas­per­a­tion with church­es. In one place you lament, “I’d want­ed to bring the pantry into church—and in a way, I had. It was mild­ly dis­ap­point­ing to me, in the way that church itself could be, com­pared to the rad­i­cal vision implied by Jesus’ meal.”

It might be dis­ap­point­ing, but the good news is you can’t put the Spirit in a box. So yes, there are moments in our life at The Food Pantry when every­thing seems a lit­tle out of con­trol, tran­scen­dent, wild, possible….and then there are the dull after­noons, when every­thing feels rou­tine and tire­some. That’s not ter­ri­ble, it’s just the way church is.

Why was it essen­tial for you to feed peo­ple in the church sanc­tu­ary itself, not some audi­to­ri­um or “din­ing room,” and in full view of the altar itself?

St. Gregory’s is blessed by not hav­ing a parish hall…so every­thing hap­pens right smack in the mid­dle of the sanc­tu­ary. After ser­vices on Sundays we put cof­fee and food on the altar for cof­fee hour; on Fridays the altar holds bags, gloves, snacks. We believe the altar is strong enough to hold everything.


One of the things peo­ple often say when they come in to get food at the pantry and see the icons and the can­dles and the col­or­ful space is, “Wow– you let us in the front door!” We want the pantry, like our church ser­vices, to be beau­ti­ful, wel­com­ing: a holy place for holy people.


The inscrip­tions on our altar say it all: on one side, there’s a quote from the 7th cen­tu­ry mys­tic Isaac of Ninevah, read­ing: “Did not our Lord dine with pub­li­cans and har­lots? Therefore make no dis­tinc­tion between wor­thy and unwor­thy; all must be equal in your eyes to love and to serve.” And on the oth­er side of the altar, in gold let­ters, is an insult to Jesus record­ed in Luke’s Gospel: “This guy eats with sinners.”


Can you say a word about “the pol­i­tics of food” in America. It seems like a crazy, bro­ken sys­tem, where there is enough for all, yet too often food does not reach peo­ple who need it most.


The Food Pantry exists in the crazi­ness of the American agri­cul­tur­al sys­tem, where it often makes more eco­nom­ic sense for farm­ers to donate food than to sell it at a loss, and where peo­ple can be bad­ly nour­ished and hun­gry amid oceans of cheap mass-pro­duced food.


We work with a non­prof­it food bank, part of a nation­wide net­work, that has, in a sense, pro­fes­sion­al­ized glean­ing. A lot of peo­ple I know who are farm­ing in cities are think­ing about what it would mean for com­mu­ni­ties to become pro­duc­ers of food, instead of scroung­ing on the edges of the indus­tri­al food system.



What coun­sel do you offer those wish­ing to start a Food Pantry in their community?

Talk to peo­ple!  You need to be in rela­tion­ship with those in your com­mu­ni­ty who are affect­ed by hunger before you set up, to find out if any­one even wants a pantry. You need to talk to all kinds of dif­fer­ent peo­ple at each step as you design and launch the pro­gram, and in an ongo­ing way as you make changes.

There’s no sin­gle mag­ic for­mu­la for how to run a food pantry; our belief is that the strongest and most last­ing pro­grams are designed and run by those who use them, in response to actu­al com­mu­ni­ty needs. Successful plan­ning, oper­a­tions, and growth all require the full par­tic­i­pa­tion of the peo­ple being served. We know that each com­mu­ni­ty is dif­fer­ent and has spe­cif­ic needs, so we encour­age you as a first step, wher­ev­er you are, to talk to peo­ple about what they need and how they want to be involved.


Visit Sara’s web­site, and make a dona­tion to the Food Pantry here:


Photos by David Sanger

Caption: The Food Pantry takes place in the mid­dle of St. Gregory’s sanc­tu­ary, around the altar.