Notes from San Francisco
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. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PwKqzmnuEc
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: http://saramiles.net/food_pantry
Photos by David Sanger
Caption: The Food Pantry takes place in the middle of St. Gregory’s sanctuary, around the altar.