Tuesday, March 6, 2007

"Take This Bread"

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. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Out, The Progressive, La Jornada and Salon, among other publications.

Her new book is Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion.

She put the book to the "page 69 test" and reported the following:
My book, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion is about my unexpected conversion to Christianity, by eating a piece of bread -- that is, putting Jesus in my mouth. Until that first communion, I'd lived a happily secular life as a restaurant cook, a war correspondent, a journalist: I was a leftist lesbian with a strong suspicion of religion.

At a time when hateful right-wing American Christianity is ascendent, when religion worldwide is rife with fundamentalism and exclusionary crusades, I stumbled into a faith centered on sacraments and action. What I found wasn't about angels or going to church or trying to be "good." It wasn't about arguing a doctrine or pledging allegiance to a pastor. I was, as the prophet said, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. I found it at the eternal and material core of Christianity: body, blood, bread, wine. I discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the despised and outcasts are honored.

And so I took communion, and began to feed people, compelled to find new ways to share what I'd experienced. I started a food pantry and gave away literally tons of fruit and vegetables and cereal around the same altar where I'd first received the body of Christ. I started new pantries all over the city to feed thousands.

My new vocation didn't turn out to be as simple as folding my hands in the pews and declaring myself "saved." Nor did it mean talking kindly to poor folks and handing them the occasional sandwich from a sanctified distance. I had to trudge in the rain through housing projects, sit on the curb wiping the runny nose of a psychotic man, take the firing pin out of a battered woman's .357 Magnum. I had to struggle with my atheist family, my doubting friends, and the prejudices and traditions of my new-found church. I learned about the great American scandal of the politics of food and the economy of hunger. I met thieves, child abusers, millionaires, day laborers, politicians, schizophrenics, gangsters and bishops, all blown into my life through the restless power of a call to feed people, widening what I thought of as my "community" in ways that were exhilarating, confusing, often scary.

In this excerpt from page 69 I try to explain to one of my secular friends what's happening....

...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," Francisco 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?
Read an excerpt from Take This Bread.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Series.

--Marshal Zeringue