A growing stack of partly-read books wobbles uncomfortably on my bedside table. I start each new one enthusiastically, only to be easily seduced by the next lovely title. Some are intentionally unfinished: books of essays I enjoy reading slowing over time or devotional books with a page to be savored and pondered before moving to the next. Others are novels I just don’t feel like finishing (I know, they should get moved to a different pile) or nonfiction books that I begin and think, “This is so rich, I’m going to wait until I can talk it over with someone.” A lousy reading strategy, by the way.
Then every so often I pick up a book and every other book on the table just has to wait until this one is devoured, page by delicious page. Devoured is the just the word for Sara Miles’ Take This Bread, a memoir of feeding and being fed. Miles was a mid-life, left-wing, lesbian atheist journalist when she accidently converted to Christianity. This book tells her unlikely story.
Take This Bread begins with the moment Sara discovers Jesus, or eats him as she puts it, in an Episcopal eucharist in San Francisco. That moment, more surprising to her than to anyone else (though pretty astounding to her adamantly atheist mother and her highly skeptical friends) sets in motion a new, previously unimaginable course for her life. She starts a small food pantry in her new church and soon finds herself feeding hundreds of San Francisco’s poor every week, her faith growing along with her work. She weaves her understanding of hunger, spiritual and physical, into this beautifully written story.
Writing with humor and self-awareness, Sara tells of her 20s spent in NYC working in the restaurant industry, then her 30s as a journalist covering the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In Central America she falls in love, gets pregnant and chooses to return to the United States to raise her daughter. It is a few years later when she happens to walk into a church.
Sara brings her journalistic inquisitiveness and her skeptical spirit to this new enterprise of faith. In seeking to understand her own beliefs, as well as those of the church contemporary and historical, she articulates a gospel based on bread. The bread we share with each other, the bread Christ shares with us, the politics of bread, the joys and struggles of feeding and being fed.
As a life-long seeker of faith and a 21 year veteran of the professional ministry who for several years has found myself outside the institution I once so devotedly served, I read Sara’s story of making her way into Christianity with a hunger of my own. Over all those years of reading theology and sermons (and writing a few hundred of my own), I don’t know if I’ve ever read a simpler, clearer articulation of the gospel than this one. There have certainly been other books that spoke to me as forcefully, books that have made me laugh and cry and shout out in joy. But for a pure, honest understanding of the most basic message of Jesus, this one can’t be beat.
Plus, it’s a good story. A story of change and upheaval and new beginnings and old wounds, told with wit and poignancy.
Mainline pastors love people like Sara Miles. Like Nora Gallagher and Anne Lamott and Kathleen Norris, we (I can still say we) find our life’s work justified when these highly intelligent, previously atheist or agnostic women walk into a local Episcopal (Gallagher and Miles) or Presbyterian (Lamott and Norris) church and find their lives turned upside down in beautiful and magical ways.
But let’s be frank. They don’t walk into the typical church — the safe, somewhat sterile ones that most of us, if we’re truthful, serve. They walk into the churches on the edge, the risk-taking churches, the ones that have sided with a marginalized group of people (in Lamott’s case) or have burst the boundaries of their own liturgical traditions (as with Miles). I see these stories as cautionary tales for most traditional, liberal Christians. Nobody gets converted by a committee.
That said, pastors and church members will love this book. I imagine anyone hungry for community and meaning might love it, as well. Though I wonder, even when told with such passion and clarity, how well the Jesus tale translates to those who don’t already get it. Because, as Miles so wonderfully writes, faith is not a question to be resolved or a position to be defended, but bread to be shared. That’s the only way to really get it, ever. In the flesh.