Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion

Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion

by Sara Miles


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Early one morning, for no earthly reason, Sara Miles, raised an atheist, wandered into a church, received communion, and found herself transformed–embracing a faith she’d once scorned. A lesbian left-wing journalist who’d covered revolutions around the world, Miles didn’t discover a religion that was about angels or good behavior or piety; her faith centered on real hunger, real food, and real bodies. Before long, she turned the bread she ate at communion into tons of groceries, piled on the church’s altar to be given away. Within a few years, she and the people she served had started nearly a dozen food pantries in the poorest parts of their city.

Take This Bread is rich with real-life Dickensian characters–church ladies, millionaires, schizophrenics, bishops, and thieves–all blown into Miles’s life by the relentless force of her newfound calling. Here, in this achingly beautiful, passionate book, is the living communion of Christ.

“The most amazing book.”
–Anne Lamott

“Engaging, funny, and highly entertaining . . . Miles comments, often with great insight, on the ugliness that many people associate with a particular brand of Christianity. Why would any thinking person become a Christian? is one of the questions she addresses, and her answer is also compelling reading.”

“Powerful . . . This book is a gem [and] will remain with you forever.”
–The Decatur Daily

“What Miles learns about faith, about herself and about the gift of giving and receiving graciously are wonderful gifts for the reader.”
–National Public Radio

“[A] joyful memoir . . . advocates big-tent Christianity in the truest sense . . . a story of finding sustenance and passing it on.”
–National Catholic Reporter

“Rigorously honest, Take This Bread demonstrates how hard–and how necessary–it is to welcome everyone to the table, without exception.”
–San Francisco Chronicle

“Moving, delightful and significant.”
–The Christian Century

Don’t miss the reading group guide in the back of the book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345495792
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/05/2008
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 107,232
Product dimensions: 5.21(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Sara Miles is the author of How to Hack a Party Line: The Democrats and Silicon Valley and co-editor of Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan and the anthology Opposite Sex: Gay Men on Lesbians, Lesbians on Gay Men. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Progressive, La Jornada, and Salon, among others. She has written extensively on military affairs, politics, and culture. She lives in San Francisco with her family. Visit the her website at www.saramiles.net.

Read an Excerpt

My first year at St. Gregory’s would begin, and end, with questions. Now I understand that questions are at the heart of faith, and that certainties about God can flicker on and off, no matter what you think you know. But back then I thought “believers” were people who knew exactly what they believed, and had nailed all the answers.

My first set of questions was very basic. I covertly studied the faces of people at St. Gregory’s when they took the bread, trying to guess what they were feeling, but I was too proud and too timid to ask either priests or congregants the beginner’s queries: Why do you cross yourselves? What are the candles for? How do you pray? And, more seriously: do you really believe this stuff?

My next question was not about God or church: it was nakedly about me, and my fears. What would my friends think?

In America I knew exactly one person who was a Christian. It turned out that my friend Mark Pritchard, an introverted writer with a tongue piercing, attended a Lutheran church with wooden pews where he sang old-fashioned hymns every Sunday. So I took some walks with Mark, trying to draw him out, but despite his orange Mohawk and wild sexual politics, he was a fairly Lutheran guy, not much given to discussing his emotions or spiritual life. “Sure, well, I believe in first principles,” Mark said to me, cautiously, when I probed him about his beliefs. He might as well have been speaking Greek. “Oh,” I said. I didn’t know anyone else who went to church.

Poor people certainly believed in God. San Francisco might be the least church-going city in the nation, but there were still plenty of churches within the run-down blocks around my house –the left-wing Chicano Catholic parish with its gorgeous altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe; the “Temple of the Lyre of the Valley,” an evangelical Salvadoran storefront; the black Pentecostal dive, the santeria chapel, the cruddy white-trash Assembly of God building with its dirty curtains. Poor people said “God bless you” and crossed themselves and stood on street corners singing loud, bad hymns; they bought their little girls frothy First Communion dresses; they buried their dead gangbanger brothers with incense and Scripture.

Nationally, middle-class Christians –even though many seemed to enjoy portraying themselves as a picked-on, oppressed minority, ceaselessly battling secular humanist regimes –weren’t exactly an endangered species, either. People who called themselves Christians comprised 85% of the population. Christian rock music alone was a billion-dollar a year enterprise; there were more than a hundred and fifty million Christian Web sites, and there had never been a non-Christian United States president.

But my own friends weren’t poor urban believers or smug God-talking suburbanites. My own friends, at the most, read about Buddhism or practiced yoga. They tended to be cynical, hilarious, and over-educated, with years of therapy and contemporary literature behind them, and I was afraid to mention that I was slipping off to church and singing about Jesus on Sundays instead of sleeping late, cooking brunch, and reading the New York Times Book Review as I’d been raised to do. I couldn’t tell them about communion, or that I had started to read the Bible I’d bought, furtively, at a used-book store. It would be years before I’d meet Paul Fromberg——a funny, profane priest who would become my closest friend. He believed that “the craziest thing about Jesus is that church life never gets in the way of feeling close to him,” and would teach me about the ironies of religion. At the time, though, I had no idea that I could be pals with anyone who described himself, unabashedly, as both “a big fag” and “Jesus’ man.”

My social circle was shocked when I first shyly broached the subject of church. An activist lawyer I knew sputtered. “Are you kidding?” he said. He launched a litany of complaints about the Church that I’d come to hear over and over: it was the most reactionary force in the world, anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobic….the Vatican…the Crusades…Jerry Falwell…child-molesting priests…Ralph Reed… I’d hated, during the 1980s, being expected to defend left movements or revolutionary parties, even when they were screwed up. I had no interest in defending another more fabulously corrupt institution. “It’s not about the Church,” I said. “It’s about...”

“Good deeds?” the lawyer asked, incredulously. My desire for religion just didn’t make sense to him. He worked harder than anyone I’d ever met, spending fourteen hours a day defending Haitian refugees and Muslim political detainees and the victims of war and empire. He’d listened to prisoners on Guantánamo sob as they described Christian jailers destroying the Koran; he had represented a Nicaraguan woman raped by evangelical soldiers who sang hymns as they took turns with her on a dirt floor. Whatever faith drove him forward in his vocation, it had nothing to do with the Almighty God so readily invoked at prayer breakfasts in Washington.

But 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. It was an upside-down world in which treasure, as the prophet said, was found in darkness; the hungry were filled with good things and the rich sent out empty; in which new life was revealed through a humiliated, hungry woman and an empty, tortured man.

It was a picture that my friend Jose Suarez, who’d left his Cuban Baptist family in Texas to become a psychiatrist, had also glimpsed——but only briefly. Devout as a child, saved as a teenager at a Billy Graham rally, Jose made it through a year at a conservative Christian college before he began to feel “betrayed” by the inauthenticity of religion. “I’d go to services,” he said, “and it was all very social, unexamined, class-bound. I mean, didn’t they read the words of Jesus?”

But the hypocrisy and insincerity of church, what had driven my own parents away, was only part of it. “I was actively listening,” Jose said. “I really wanted to hear God. Ping­­ –nothing. Ping–nothing. I couldn’t find it. I’d drive out this highway into the country at night, lie back on the hood of my car and look at the stars, and have these arguments with God. It was like: say something, show me, give me a sign, some sort of experience. I’d watch the stars move across the sky, but I couldn’t find it inside. The container didn’t contain anymore.”

And so Jose had been wary, though curious, when I told him I was going to church: I was the first friend he’d had since high school who was anything close to a believer. It was talking with him that I was able to articulate, for the first time, something about what prayer meant to me: what I was searching for, beyond the psychological, with all my questions about faith.

Jose and I met for lunch at a small café with outdoor tables one afternoon, when he was in the middle of an excruciating breakup. We sat on the patio and talked, picking at some complicated California sourdough-and-vegetable sandwiches while the fog came in.

Jose was in analysis then, and seeing a dozen patients, and serving as the medical director at a community mental health clinic, and writing scholarly papers on Freud, and doing energetic yoga for hours every morning, and generally overachieving, but he couldn’t fill every minute, and whenever he paused, the heartbreak would pour in. “Maybe I should go sit at the Zen center again,” Jose said. He was a small, handsome man with wiry hair and little glasses and perfect posture. His eyes were wet. “I’m not sleeping so well anyway, I might as well get up at five, what the hell.”

We finished lunch and I took his hand. “Jose,” I said, “you should pray.”

As soon as I said it I felt like an idiot –worse, like a proselytizing busybody who knows, without ambiguity, what’s right for everyone else. Jose looked genuinely surprised. Then he put on his analyst face. “Hmm,” he said. “What do you mean?”

What did I mean by prayer? I didn’t mean asking an omnipotent being to do favors; the idea of “answered prayers” was untenable for me, since millions of people prayed fervently for things they never received. I didn’t mean reciting a formula: I loved the language of some of the old prayers that were chanted at St. Gregory’s, but I didn’t think the words had magical power to change things. I didn’t mean kneeling and looking pious, or trying to make a deal with God, or even praying “for” something. What was I telling him?

“Um, well,” I said. I was embarrassed. Then I looked at Jose again, and the word “tender” filled my mind –tender as in sore to the touch and compassionate, at the same time. After my father had died, Jose had listened to me cry with the deepest empathy and patience, not trying to “comfort” me, but just being present. As tenderly as I could, I said to him, “I really don’t know. I don’t know what I believe, or who I’m talking to. Sometimes I just try to stay open, sort of. Especially when it hurts. And I try to, I know this is corny, but I try to summon up thankfulness.”

“When you told me to pray,” Jose would remember later, “it was incredibly earnest. You said prayer was like having this intense, profound longing that you just had to be with. That you put the longing in the hands of God, in a certain way. That it was important to be receptive to the unfulfilled, and not fill it, or deny it.”

I had to be receptive, or go crazy: because even as I kept going to church, the questions raised by the experience only multiplied. Conversion was turning out to be quite far from the greeting-card moment promised by televangelists, when Jesus steps into your life, personally saves you and becomes your lucky charm forever. Instead, it was socially and politically awkward, as well as profoundly confusing. I wasn’t struck with any sudden conviction that I now understood the “truth.” If anything, I was just crabbier, lonelier, and more destabilized.

All that grounded me were those pieces of bread. I was feeling my way toward a theology, beginning with what I had taken in my mouth, and working out from there. I couldn’t start by conceptualizing God as an abstract “Trinity,” or trying to “prove” a divine existence philosophically. It was the materiality of Christianity that fascinated me, the compelling story of incarnation in its grungiest details, the promise that words and flesh were deeply, deeply connected. I reflected, for example, about Katie, and about what it was like to be both a mother and a mother’s child. The entire process of human reproduction was, if I considered it for a minute, about as “intolerable” as the apostles said communion was. It sounded just as weird as the claim that God was in a piece of bread you could eat. And yet it was true.

I grew inside my mother, the way Katie grew inside me. I came out of her and ate her, just as Katie ate my body, literally, to live. I became my mother in ways that still felt, sometimes, as elemental and violent as the moment when I’d been pushed out from between her legs in a great rush of blood. And it was the same with my father: he had helped make me, in ways that were wildly mysterious and absolutely powerful. Like Jesus, he had gone inside somebody else’s body and then become a part of me. The shape of my hands, the way I cleared my throat, the color of my eyes: my parents lived in me – body and soul, DNA and spirit. That was like the bread becoming God becoming me, in ways seen and unseen.

I tried to remember my own passionate spiritual feelings as a child, when I had no religion and no language to understand them. There had been one early spring afternoon, raw and chilly, when I lay by myself in the muddy backyard in my snowsuit examining a fallen log, looking and looking and looking. There were patches of snow on the wet wood, and around it spears of onion grass just beginning to poke up, and I sat up after half an hour contemplating the log. The cloudy sky above me was so huge, and I was so small. The phrase “the whole universe” occurred to me. I must have been in third grade, and no amount of papier-maché solar system models had prepared me for the vast, heart-beating calm I felt, or for the inarticulate desire to just stay there, suspended, looking and breathing my tiny puffs of the whole universe’s air, until I had to pee and went inside, shedding my wet mittens.

I remembered how I used to pray –there really was no other word for it –when I was six or seven. I’d been reaching for something solemn, obligatory, ritual: wanting God and not even knowing what that was. In an upstairs bedroom in my parents’ home I’d once been taught, by a girl who went to Catholic school, the vaguely sexual language of the Hail Mary. It remained a mysterious, private poem to recite the way I recited, as I walked home from school, lines from other poems: “The breaking waves dashed high/on the stern and rockbound coast.” But I had no framework to understand it as prayer, linked to the same longing I’d feel alone, at night, when I looked at the ceiling and made up words.

What would religious instruction have done for me then? What would have sustained me more as a child than my own atheist parents’ love, my father’s soft voice at bedtime as he invented stories for me, my mother’s hand on my back? What would have fed me more than cooking and eating with them, or given me more courage?

Food was a lot of what had grounded me before, shaping my family, my work, my relationships. It had meant a five-gallon plastic bucket full of broken eggs. It had meant a generously offered bowl of rice porridge in the jungle. It had meant the thin blue milk leaking from my own breasts. Now food, in the form of communion, was collecting all of those experiences in one place, and adding a new layer of meaning–not on my time, but on God’s.

The child I was, protected from religion by her parents, at some point had became the woman crying at the communion table. Those tears weren’t a conclusion, or a happy ending, just part of a motion towards something. It was still continuing. God didn’t work in people according to a convenient schedule, by explaining everything or tying up the loose plot lines of every story. Sometimes nothing was settled.

So I sat by myself a lot and mused about God, and my mother, and flesh and blood. I read the Bible. I prayed; I tried to stay open to the questions that flooded me. I didn’t tell anyone I was becoming a religious nut.

Table of Contents

Author's Note     ix
Prologue     xi
The Family Table     3
Pilgrimage     10
Standing the Heat     14
Cooking with My Brother     24
War Years     35
First Communion     54
Crossing     65
Histories     74
Crossing II     91
Seeing More     98
"Good Works"     109
A Different Everyone     119
Church of the One True Sack     130
Gleaners     141
Faith and Politics     159
Words and Acts     169
The Desert     179
Manna     198
Misfits     207
Cooking with My Brother II     218
Rites     227
Multiplying the Loaves     242
Sunday Dinner     250
The Cost of Faith     261
The Heavenly Feast     267
Acknowledgments     281

Reading Group Guide

1. What has been your most powerful experience of communion?

2. Do you share Miles’s belief that Jesus’ Table should be open to everyone? Are there people you think should not be allowed to receive communion?

3. Discuss Miles’s understanding of the rites of healing, marriage, baptism, and Eucharist. Do you think rites that take place outside of what she calls an “official” church context can be truly sacramental? Do you ever experience church outside of church? Have you experienced Eucharist outside of a church service?

4. Miles was baptized as an adult and writes that she takes her baptismal vows seriously. Read through these vows, and discuss how you live each one out.

5. “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” What does this mean in the context of Miles’s food pantry and the people involved with it?

6. Miles is a lesbian and a Christian. Does reading about her experience change your religious beliefs about homosexuality?

7. Miles writes that food pantry was “not a social service program but a service, modeled on the Eucharist” (p. tk). Is there a difference in your church between the way you do liturgy and the way you do outreach? How does Scripture inform your outreach work?

8. As a layperson, Miles preaches, serves communion, anoints, blesses, and leads prayer at her church. Do you know other laypeople who do any of this kind of work? What is your own experience of doing this work? Do you think that certain work should be done only by ordained people?

9. Miles believes that conversion is not a single moment of epiphany but an ongoing process. Discuss your own experience of conversion.

10. What is the Bible passage that you think best expresses the message of Take This Bread?

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Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Food for the hungry, both in body and spirit, Sara Miles has told of her own conversion to Christianity. She was a middle aged woman who was reared by atheistic parents.She is a journalist who has traveled the world in wars and troubles and wherever she was, she was fed. Hunger was the need that bound people together.The common need of hunger caused coworkers and strangers to share whatever food was available. When Sara, for no reason known to her, entered St. Gregory's Episcopal Church in San Francisco, she was given bread at communion. Her life changed. This is an excellent read.
JustinNC More than 1 year ago
A liberal woman with a plethora of life experiences finds herself, and I would say her very soul, in the simple act of feeding and eating. Though her narrative, one can really see Miles' recurring theme of feeding others. It can be seen in a variety of ways, but what she eventually finds is that while her call to feed others permeates her life and is her driving force, at the same time she also needs to be fed. It is through many experiences that culminates in one of the most powerful Communion experiences I have ever heard/read. This book is by far, one of the best memoirs that I have read. Miles is instantly relatable and a fantastic writer. Through the sharing of her experiences she causes one to look back on one's own journey and see what spiritual hand has been played in their lives. She also has helped me to view communion and the act of feeding others as esteemed and holy an act as they should be! This is a great book, easy to read, and you won't want to put it down! You may not agree with her "theology", but you can't debate her experiences and where those experiences led her! Two thumbs up and 5 stars to Sara Miles!
Corrvin_Smith More than 1 year ago
I've been told by several friends, Christian and non-Christian, that the best (or even only) way for a Christian to make others WANT to convert is to lead by example. Miles' narrative, in which she converts to Christianity, becomes part of an active church, and then leads others to reach out and build a food bank for the community, is not only a single Christian's story. It's an example that shows us all what we're capable of being and how anyone can be changed by the power of belief and inspiration. One point Ms. Miles makes is that it's important not only for us to help others, but that even the poorest person NEEDS to be able to give help as well as receive it. I've been inspired by this book to join my own church's Benevolence group and I'm helping brainstorm ways for us to help the community as a whole better-- and, I hope, to share our own talents and abilities to help those we help to give something forward. Ms. Miles also shares, very briefly, that many Christians have different beliefs on some issues of sin, but that regardless of those beliefs, we all ought to work together to help each other. One difference that comes up briefly is that Ms. Miles is a lesbian, and continues to have a warm relationship with her partner, who accepts and confirms her Christianity without any desire to convert; and some of those whose work helps with the food bank believe (unlike Ms. Miles) that this is wrong of her to do. Despite this very personal difference, those who disagree are presented simply as Christians with different opinions, not as terrible people or enemies. This is a warm and loving book that should be read by anyone who wants to learn more about the Christian charity tradition-- with the warning that it may make you want to volunteer yourself!
HGB84 More than 1 year ago
Sara Miles will change the way you view church, communion, and charity. She writes from a very real place that doesn't hide the truth about the work behind feeding people. If you finish this book uninspired, please read it again.
nancyewhite on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An unlikely Christian (lesbian, single mother, political radical, atheist) has a dramatic conversion experience when she walks into an Episcopal church out of reporter's curiousity, takes communion and finds her soul completely overwhelmed. Soon enough, she has a vision of a truly open table that serves food to all and convinces her parish to allow her to open a food pantry which turns away no one. This memoir describes the religious, spiritual, financial and tangible challenges she faced as well as her conviction that doing something useful (feeding people in her case) is communion. Her tone is often irreverant in a traditional sense, observing at her pantry "Jesus didn't have to deal with the f***ing Russians" for example but is never irreverant in the deeper sense. Her story could be read by many Christians engaged in long discussions about "right" and "wrong" and process as a useful reminder of Jesus's radical ministry of loving the outcast and his call to "feed my sheep". This memoir, in the end, is about how one unlikely person found a way to create Beloved Community with other unlikely people in a very real way.
DubiousDisciple on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Inspiring, honest, and deeply moving, by the end of Sara's story you'll love this lesbian, left-wing atheist as much as any of the other Christians of God's flock. It's hard to remember a book I enjoyed more.On a whim one day, Sara walked into a church, ate a bit of bread, sipped a bit of wine, and underwent "a radical conversion." While never overcoming her skepticism about God, she nevertheless embraced the church ... but the Christianity she embraced had no use for angels or worship or dreams of eternity. It quickly came to mean real concern about real people. Take This Bread is about real hunger, and Sara's struggles to establish a food pantry to care for the poor, elderly, sick, deranged, and marginalized of San Francisco.Both light-hearted and deeply meaningful, this is a book that will toy with the full range of your emotions.
morningrob on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An interesting book though difficult to pinpoint what kind of book it is. Part memoir, part theology, part social analysis- this book can engage the reader on a number of levels. Therefore, what a person might find interesting in this book is determined by their own social location. For example, a person who is finds the various liberal/conservative controversies interesting would find her take on this issue to be most important. Same for poverty issues and theological analysis.
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is certain to be one of my favorite reads of the year. Sara Miles is a woman who has never visited a church in her life, whose parents are acknowledged atheists. Yet, suddenly and unexpectedly, Miles eats a bite of the Lord¿s Supper and becomes a Christian. Her life completely changes and she becomes the founder of a food bank at her church. The food bank brings in the poor, the desolate, the sick, the crazed, and these, in turn, become changed and, in addition, act to change those in the church. Delightful.
KeithAkers on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Yes, there IS such a thing as liberal Christianity! Thanks! She's not vegetarian, though, and doesn't seem to have any consciousness of this issue.
MarthaHuntley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A profoundly Christian book, the description of receiving Christ in communion leading to a changed life that changes other lives, I found to be riveting and moving. Maybe the best description I've ever read of what Communion is or can be.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Having been raised as a Christian, I took the basic tenets of my faith for granted. Sara Miles' "Aha! moment" led me to experience communion with new eyes. Her desire to feed others as Christ feeds us is inspiring.
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