Friday, June 01, 2007

Sara Miles: "Service is Thanksgiving"

In our discussions of Sara Miles' book, Take This Bread, we have touched on the experience of conversion and the open table invitation offered by St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco.

Those are important discussions. But by themselves, they offer an incomplete picture of Sara's book, as well as a distorted view of the Christian faith. Conversion and communion are the beginning, not the end of the story. We've received God's free gift of grace. But we're conduits, not storehouses. Now that we've been given this amazing gift, what are we going to do with it? How will we allow this same grace to freely flow from us into the world?

Sara heard a call to put the grace she had received into action. Here is how she describes it:

...That picture in the back of my mind was getting clearer. It was communion, after all, but with free groceries instead of bread and wine. With the "everyone" of "Jesus invites everyone to his table" extended, so that more sinners and outcasts could share the feast. With the literal bread of life served from the same table as the bread of heaven. This is it, I thought, what I'm supposed to do: Feed my sheep. I phoned the food bank and, panicking slightly as the words left my mouth, introduced myself in a way I never had before. "I'm Sara Miles, from St. Gregory's Church," I said. "I'd like to talk with someone about starting a food pantry."...
(Take This Bread, pp. 104-105)
And with that, St. Gregory's Food Pantry was born. They now serve over 250 people per week, and have launched numerous new food distribution sites all around San Fransisco.

Listen to how Sara describes the connection between feeding the hungry and the life of the Church:

...The pantry did not become a “service project” of the church. It’s simply church: a liturgy of acts, modeled directly on the liturgy of the Word. It’s as necessary and as intimate as breaking bread together: daily bread, the bread of Heaven, and the bread that we become. We are bringing each other into communion.

There’s a tendency to think of service as something auxiliary to “real” worship–something we do because, being edified and basically nice people, we want to be helpful to others. Or because, in that dreadful, condescending phrase, we feel an obligation to “those less fortunate than ourselves.” We tend to think of service as something a committee does. Something you write a check for. “A good cause.”

But the people who serve at the pantry, like those who serve in our liturgies, know otherwise.

When we sing our prayers together right before the pantry opens, holding hands, I often thank God for letting me feed others, as I have been fed, and for allowing me to give, knowing that at other times I have been, and will be, only able to receive...

...Service is thanksgiving, because it means not only giving freely, but understanding how greatly we’re loved. I remember an afternoon at the food pantry when I was trying to open up, while an impatient throng of people shouted at me and at each other in three languages. I’d been unloading crates of oranges as fast as I could, and bossing the volunteers around, but we were still behind schedule. We were short a crate of snacks, and the two old Cuban sisters who always show up hours early were out front, bickering noisily. Three hyper little kids were pestering me for candy, and the crazy guy with apocalyptic theories kept trying to corner me and explain the secret messages he’d received. Some visiting minister was standing around, but I couldn’t get a minute to talk to him; new volunteers kept asking me what to do, but somehow nothing was getting done. Everything felt hectic and irritating and on the verge of chaos, and my feet hurt. I was sick of poor people, sick of church people, utterly sick of myself.

And then a woman pushed her way to the front of the crowd. She was Chinese, with a quilted jacket, and she was thrusting a package at me. I couldn’t understand what she was trying to say, but she kept smiling and coming closer. “Here,” she said, and handed me a piece of fish wrapped in waxed paper, still warm. “Food, for you”...
Reading this book, with all the stories of those whose lives became meshed with Sara's as a result of this "radical conversion," was a very emotional experience for me. I found myself shouting aloud "Yes!" at some points, and quietly shedding tears at others. Read it. It is an amazing story.

I need to say something personal about hunger. I've said some of this before, but I need to say it again. And again.

As I've mentioned before, I spent a few of my teen years as a homeless boy, usually hiding from the police because I was a run away from various foster homes. During those years, I often went many days without a meal; sometimes without any food at all. If I came across a few pennies, I'd buy hard candy. Sucking on it made the craving for food a little less intense. In season, I'd feast on the wild berries that could be found along the borders of some of the city parks. Sometimes I'd sneak into the dorms of the university, looking for scraps in the dining halls. And sometimes I'd do even more desperate things to feed my craving need.

When this went on for a few months, the lack of nutrition caused unusual physiological changes. I became very weak. I would have to rest more often as I walked. I could no longer do the periodic odd jobs that supplied me with money for food, as I no longer had the strength to control the mower, or lift the sacks of charcoal onto the pallet. I once headed south from San Francisco, hitching rides with no destination in mind. I ended up in San Diego. The police picked me up for being a minor out past curfew. When they found out I was a run away, they sent me to the local juvenile hall. The next morning, I was led outside with the rest of the boys for calesthenics. I couldn't do it. Not even jumping jacks. The other boys got a good laugh out of it, of course. The staff were shocked by my weak attempts to flop my arms and legs. There was no stength left in my muscles. I was slowly starving to death.

There's another attribute of malnutrition that doesn't get mentioned much; the effect it has on the brain. Becoming so physically weak was usually accompanied by very strange thoughts and emotions. Sometimes I'd walk into a room and have to immediately leave because the sudden bombardment of stimuli coming from those who were present was too overwhelming. Paranoia was a constant companion. I would begin to avoid other people, and could often be found walking along the road muttering to myself. The boundaries between imagination and reality would begin to blur.

After about a month of meals every day, these symptoms would disappear. That is why when we offer someone from the streets a hand up, there needs to be at least thirty days given before we place expectations of employment or training on them. They need time to heal from malnutrition before they can function.

One other point: Because I was on the run and hiding from the police, I tried very hard to remain invisible. I never carried a bag or a backpack, and would wash up every morning in a public restroom. What amazed me was that most of those who were on the street with me also took great care to not draw attention to themselves, and made the effort to appear as if they were just like everyone else, even though many of them were not being sought out by the authorities. Why? Because they were ashamed. Because, in the eyes of society, they had not lived up to the expectations of the "American dream." They saw themselves as failures.

There are thousands of the invisible poor in our own backyards. They want to hold on to any scrap of dignity that they have left. We can honor this by freely helping them, with no strings attached. No names. No sign-ins. No records of their visit. If we don't do this, they may not be willing to receive our gift. Guarding our human dignity is a powerful thing.

After all, we're talking about food. Did you know that in the US, 20% of our food ends up in the garbage? There is enough. Why must we place conditions on who receives it? Food can be seen as an sacramental sign of grace; and since freely we have received, so freely we give.

Reach out to those who are slowly starving to death in your own backyard. Reach out to them, not because they are worthy, not because they deserve it, but because they are human; because they are children of the living God. And who knows, if you look deeply into to their eyes, you may just glimpse there the King who said to us, "Just as you have done this for the least of those who are of my family, you have done it for me."


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