Author: Miles, Sara
Date published: February 9, 2010
OUR FOOD PANTRY had everything we needed because we gave everything away: we were invincible because we offered power and authority, just like food, to everyone. It was one of those Jesus-freak paradoxes that could sound, on the face of it, ludicrous. Whoever loses his life will save it; whoever is last will be first.
And yet as I traveled around talking with people at other churches that ran food programs, a great deal of what I saw struck me as modeled on different values: those of what Jesus scathingly called "the world." Screening, testing, rationingchurches set up food programs that operated like the department of motor vehicles or a welfare office. They established "intake procedures" and called the people they served "clients." They never had enough volunteers, because they asked only church members to volunteer. And the people who did volunteer tended to bum out- partly, I suspected, because they got so tired of constantly having to enforce indefensible rules and be bad cops.
A big part of the problem, paradoxically, was thai people wanted to be good. Liberals particularly wanted to be good and wanted everyone else to be good, so they hammered on the verses from Matthew's Gospel in which Jesus tells his followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit prisoners, and do unto the least of these. Liberals didn't necessarily believe that these activities were, in themselves, joyful or fun or exciting. Instead, they twisted their fellow congregants' arms into working on outreach projects as if feeding the hungry were a symbolic action guaranteed to win points in heaven.
I came to hate the phrase "those less fortunate than ourselves." It usually led to guilt-laden social action programs, in which Christians resentfully but dutifully offered poor people various kinds of "services" at arm's length. At one cathedral I visited, I saw ten clergymen eating lunch by themseìves in a huge, light-filled hall, while below them 200 poor women, children and men crowded into a shabby cafeteria half the size for meals on plastic trays. The staff told me that the regular noon Eucharist attracted fewer than a dozen worshipers: apparently, nobody had ever thought to invite the people breaking bread at the soup kitchen just 50 yards away or to make the connection between the two events. The bread of heaven and daily bread were utterly different things.
At another Midwestern parish, I toured a beautiful, locked, empty sanctuary with its beautiful, locked, empty parish hall. The church's food pantry was housed underground in the basement, where supplicants for once-monthly bags of groceries waited for hours in a cramped hallway to have multiple documents checked. The elderly church volunteers complained that it was an effort for them to carry the food downstairs, but they never considered using the parish hall or the sanctuary to feed peopie. "It's so sad," said the woman who showed me around. "Nobody comes to church anymore."
The connection between worship and service played out in the different ways churches organized their work. A parish that clericaUzed worship, allowing only ordained people to make top-down decisions, was not likely to give full authority to volunteers at its food pantry. A congregation that was suspicious of newcomers, where old-timers held tightly to power, was probably also going to erect barriers to keep hungry people from running the food programs that served them. A church that doled out communion like a prize for good behavior would also tend to restrict the groceries it gave away, asking people to prove that they "deserved" the charity.
In one scenario, where worship was private, static, closed and conservative, service to the world was seen as "worthy causes"- something that interrupted and inconvenienced real church Me, rather than defining it In another, "social action ministry" was something right-thinking believers did, and prayer was merely a ritual, an oid-fashioned distraction from saving the world. Whenever I'd ask Paul Fromberg, our rector, why a church did something a particular way, his ironic answer was: "Two thousand years of Christian history, that's why." Why do we say the Lord's Prayer standing? Why is the altar fenced off? Why isn't the food pantry in the sanctuary? Why, for that matter, do we have to print the bulletin on yellow paper? Two thousand years of Christian history, he'd joke, so shut up.
Paul had a deep appreciation of the tradition, but he was also acutely aware of the ways religious groups justified their own prejudices and choices by idolizing tradition. And how, more often than not, that unexamined response encouraged people to be passive- ?? accept things as they were instead of seeing themselves as actors, as followers of Jesus with a mandate to do his work. We took Jesus really personally; at some point, the two of us had taken to calling Jesus "the Boyfriend," a riff on the ancient Christian name of ''Bridegroom." "Boyfriend" was funny, if a little disturbing- and it underscored how out-of-thelaw Jesus' relationship with us is.
But people wanted rules.
Paul and I had begun consulting with other churches around the country interested in developing new approaches to worship and service. We visited rich, establishment congregations where the clergy wore perfectly ironed vestments and small, casual churches with hippie pastors in sneakers. We led workshops on music and prayer, telling people they could make the liturgy themselves, as our congregation did. We told how our food pantry kept growing and explained it was run by poor people, for poor people. We talked with church musicians and lay leaders and food pantry volunteers and priests, asking them all to consider why they made the choices they did and what they thought their work was.
Sometimes we met resistance, but mostly we were treated to flattery. People insisted that St. Gregory's liturgy was so unique and beautiful, our food pantry was so special, that they couldn't possibly do anything like it themselves. It was as ti they wanted to explain away the possibility of their own power.
Of course, they'd say, you can experiment as much as you like out there in California; we could never get away with that in the South. Of course you must have a lot of creative folks in your congregation, not like our boring Midwestern grandmothers. Of course you have a wonderful bishop, a lot of money, a better class of poor people, some mysterious kind of permission that allows you to be so cool and daring.
I wanted to cry. "What more permission do they need?" I asked Paul, back in our hotel one evening. " 'Receive the Holy Spirit' isn't enough?"
But I remembered how often at my own food pantry I was afraid of doing things a new way. And how resentful I could be, how grudging, when the Spirit blew me somewhere I hadn't planned.
I thought about the time I'd headed over to San Francisco General Hospital for a diocesan meeting with others doing food pantries, hospital chaplaincy, community organizing. It was all fine, but I was sick of everyone. I didn't have the energy to listen to interminable reports in church-speak from inarticulate clergy or to the annoying church bureaucrat who tended to lecture us on process. I knew they were all well meaning, but I'd been at work since 7:30 in the morning and I was really not looking forward to squirming in my chair like a fussy thirdgrader through one more official presentation.
I drove down to the hospital with Paul, who, because he was such a superior Christian, instead of a crabby, pathetic one like me, had baked a Texas sheet cake for the meeting, a sort of huge low-class chocolate brownie with thick icing. I didn't care. "I don't even care," I said to Paul. "I just hope this is over soon."
We got out of the car, carrying the cake and some plastic forks, and I was still grumbling, and then a woman standing at the bus stop in front of the hospital waved at us. "Hey, what's that?" she asked. She was a skinny woman with a big, toothy smile.
"It's a Texas sheet cake," said Paul, proudly.
I didn't mean to, but I blurted out, "You want some cake?"
"Yeah," the woman said. "Oh, yeah, that looks great. I haven't eaten all day."
Paul got a little plastic fork, and I cut off a piece and handed it to her. She ate it and said, "Wow, that's amazing; that is so good," and we all laughed. I went into the meeting feeling undeservedly, irrationally full of joy.
I wasn't living in hell anymore- the hell I'd made for myself out of self-righteousness, self-pity and blame. I was instead at the feast prepared for everyone from the foundation, of the world. And all it took was trusting my own authority to give away something delicious without waiting for the right moment, without claiming I was too overworked and putting it on my to-do list of good deeds.
I saw it happen in others when I traveled with Paul. Every time, we met people who blew me away with their faithful willingness to jump in. Some were church professionals; some described themselves, humbly, as "just another soul in the pews"; and some had left church altogether. But all of them had felt Jesus breathing down their necks, tapping them on the shoulder, telling them not to wait, that they had the power to do things.
A Catholic woman wrote to me to say she ignored the anxiety of her priest ("Since Jesus loves the knuckleheads who are running things I must try to also, but I don't have to agree with them") and opened the doors of the parish hall for a weekly free lunch. A Lutheran minister left her congregation of 15 years in order to start, unsalaried, a center where anyone could drop by for rest, conversation and food. "After all," she said, "I'm Italian. You have to give people something to eat." And an Orthodox priest involved with liturgical reform told me he was convinced that his faith depended on creating "not a church of laws, bishops or customs so much, but a community hi which love rules. Very hard, but the only joy."
Joy. I saw it in people like Debbie Little Wyman, who founded a "street church" on Boston Commons that wound up inspiring a network of nearly a hundred outdoor churches. Debbie was a small woman, with a great laugh and rimless glasses that made her look like a cross between a nun and a mad scientist. She told me that she began just by taking sandwiches to the park. "It was the oddest thing," she said. "I had an itch that wouldn't go away. I just had this crazy desire to get closer to people on the street, to see what Jesus meant."
Debbie had battled with herself about leaving a high-paying professional job to become a candidate for the priesthood; then she battled with the church about her calling to be a priest without a building. It took years. "Like many street folks," she said wryly, "I guess I've never liked going indoors." A day after her ordination, she started her ministry without any more plan than packing a knapsack with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
As she told it, she bought two cups of coffee at a café, then wandered into the Boston Commons, looking, she said, for "someone on a bench who looked homeless." Debbie spotted a man and went over and sat down. She was full of doubt. "I had no idea what to say. I handed him one of the cups of coffee. He took it, he looked at me and said, 'So how are you doing today?"'
Debbie laughed. "Wham," she said. "Five minutes in, and I guess I saw who was taking care of whom."
Debbie travels all over now, helping start new outdoor churches, and there is hardly any kind of human misery she hadn't been very close to. Yet she was the least morose, most curious person I knew. I'd see her on the streets of Memphis and San Francisco, peering eagerly into the faces of people on the sidewalk, leaning over a heap of blankets and rags in a doorway, handing me a cup of yogurt with the same delighted smile she beamed at a drunk on the comer. That "crazy desire to get closer" was completely undiminished.
I looked at Debbie and thought I could never do what she did; other people looked at me and thought they could never do my work. It was true that each of us had a particular style, particular weaknesses- but those weren't excuses for inaction.
The hunger for connection wasn't something only Christians longed for. I'd thought, when I first started serving in church, how much it reminded me of working in restaurants. But I didn't realize that restaurant people might also be looking for a way to create, in their hot kitchens and crazy rushed services, an experience of communion.
Anthony Myint, like most of the Une cooks I've ever known, displayed a very particular kind of masculinity. He'd grown up in Virginia, the son of ethnic Chinese Burmese immigrants, and wore ironic glasses and a little goatee. Anthony didn't talk much, and he'd give uninflected emo shrugs if you asked him what he thought about something, but he was unquestionably in charge in a kitchen. His powerful arms were covered with burns and scars, he picked up hot pans without wincing, and he could taste with almost spectrographic precision.
San Francisco was full of young, hip, smart cooks like Anthony, but the failing economy was making it harder and harder for them to get anywhere professionally.
And Anthony disliked the whole restaurant culture anyway. He and his wife, Karen Leibowitz, lived in the Mission-my neighborhood- with its unpretentious mix of Latinos, slightly shabby hipsters, street people, and working-class f amilies. They talked constantly about a way to avoid what he called "that stupid thing where your whole life is about the profit motive." He dreamed of launching a "charitable chain" of restaurants that gave away their profits. Not, he hastened to point out, "to try and do something good," but as "a viable marketing strategy that's also socially conscious."
Karen, a deep thinker and natural organizer who'd finished her doctorate in English literature at Berkeley, had less interest in being a businessperson. But she believed Anthony could create a new business mode] by serving "food without attitude" and giving away profits to community groups. Karen didn't want to be taken for a bleeding heart just because she was blond and soft-spoken, but she'd thought a lot about what she called "a way to give thanks for our comfortable lives" and how a restaurant could build community.
Their first venture was street food. Heading home one night after a shift, Anthony noticed that the taco truck on a neighborhood corner wasn't there; apparently its owners took Thursdays off. "I want to rent that truck," he thought. Soon hundreds of cool kids were lining up at the truck window for grilled flatbread and Anthony's friend's desserts, served at bargain prices on the sidewalk.
When they outgrew the taco truck, Anthony found a run-down Chinese joint. Lung Shan, and bargained to use its kitchen one night a week for the next incarnation of the project they called Mission Street Food. There'd be no reservations, and they'd set up a "community table" at the back of the little room for unaccompanied strangers. Anthony invited proposals from guest chefs and promised to give the profits from each evening to a local charity. Karen waved away the idea that they were doing anything radical. "We make some money and give some away- it's not complicated. Earnest but not deep, that's our niche."
But Mission Street Food turned into the hot new thing. Anthony's buddies from the line, some geeky charcuterie stars, and a genius pastry chef known for his homemade salt-andpepper ice cream were doing turns there. The local food blogs were raving. In a moment of show-offmess, I'd submitted my own proposal, hoping to raise money for the food pantry.
"I'm a former restaurant cook and war correspondent," I wrote. "I worked as a journalist for years, then ate a piece of bread and found God. I now feed 750 plus a week in Potrero Hill at a church food pantry and cook a four-course family meal for 45 plus volunteers there with my sous [and the priest], Paul. I've lived in the Mission for 15 years and raise chickens, apricots, figs, apples, lemons and plums in our backyard.
"I'd like to cook a neighborhood meal, with the crucial addition of swine." I paused and sent an e-mail to Paul. He was away on a pilgrimage in Ethiopia, so I knew he wouldn't read it for a while. "Hey," I said, "we're gonna cook a benefit meal for the pantry, OK?"
Then I turned back to my proposal. In a final burst of foolish pride, I wrote, "I can deal with weird kitchens."
At some point on the morning of the benefit, as 1 was wrestling a pork butt out of its brine and sealing up the fivegallon crock of preserved-lemon chowchow, I glanced at the clock. There were only 13 more hours left on this shift.
The night itself passed in a blur. We turned the place over four times, serving around 250 meals. Paul, wearing a kerchief knotted over his head, manned the wok, burning the hair off his forearms as he literally dripped with sweat. Anthony made flatbreads, Karen worked the front of the house, and an assortment of waiters and food runners and kitchen helpers moved through the tiny rooms at warp speed. Deb Tullman, a young St. Gregory's member who worked at one of the city's most upscale restaurants, volunteered to wait tables. AnnaMarie Hoos, another church member who'd heroically chopped and diced for days of prep, was there to dine. Through it all, Lung Shan's skinny takeout cook kept turning out containers of fried rice and vegetables.
We celebrated Eucharist at midnight in the middle of the dining room, lit by strings of Christmas lights glinting off the metallic horse posters. My feet hurt more than they had in 20 years, and my shirt was slippery with grease. The waiters and dishwasher came out, curious, as I handed Paul a loaf of French bread.
He held it up, saying the ancient Hebrew prayer. "Blessed be God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth grain from the earth," he chanted.
"Now we share the bread with each other," Paul instructed. He was still wearing the kerchief, and his face was shining. "It's Jesus' table, so the bread is for everybody."
Karen looked exhausted, but she was standing nearby. The hipster waiter. Adam, was drinking Jameson's from a teacup. Anthony and his sous-chef, Emma, were at an uncleared table with a couple of friends. AnnaMarie and a few customers lingered. Deb, her posture still straight and her thick, curly hair pinned up, came close.
I remembered how Deb had told me she didn't think communion was a good idea. "It's not gonna fly," she said. "At the end of a shift everyone just leaves as fast as they can or maybe goes out to get drunk. But nobody wants to hang out in the restaurant." We passed the bread around, then a plastic glass of wine. The Boyfriend stood among us. I was a little embarrassed and unbelievably happy. Paul nodded at me.
"Come, all who are hungry," I said, repeating the prophecy of Isaiah that we used for a postcommunion prayer. "Come and eat, without money, without price. The Lord has made a promise to love you faithfully forever: you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace."'
"Amen!" Paul said. "Amen," said Deb, a little shyly.
"And now we all hug and kiss each other," said Paul.
And we did. "Peace," I said to Karen, kissing her.
"Paz," the dishwasher said to me.
Adam hugged Paul awkwardly. "Peace," Paul said. "Is there any more of that whiskey?"
"Here," said Adam. "Have some of mine."
The hostess came over with a stack of bills. She was a tall girl, with elegant shoes. "I know Anthony and Karen are going to give you the profits from tonight," she said. "But I want to give you my tips, too. Can you use it to get more food for your pantry?"
Deb came over, shaking her head. We sat down. Another of the waiters slipped me 40 bucks. "That 's it," I said. "That's communion."
"Wow, that was wild," Deb said. "Everyone was like, oh, ritual. Like we needed it but didn't know what it was. It's really different to end the night thinking: we made something together."
Karen joined us. "This customer wanted to talk to me about Mission Street Food tonight," she said. "He was visiting from Texas and wanted to know how to start a restaurant like this where he lives. He said he imagined that they could do a similar thing in the church basement." She laughed. "And I thought, oh, hmm, I guess we invented church."
Sara Miles is founder and director of ihe Food Pantry and director of ministry at St. Gregory ofNyssa Episcopal Chuch in San Francisco. She wrote Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion. This article is adapted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead, by Sara Miles © 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. This book is available at all bookstores, online booksellers and from Wiley at wiley.com or (800) 225-5945.