For LGBT History Month https://lgbthistorymonth.org.uk we are writing a weekly blog on an LGBT+ Christian. We begin with the conversion experience of Sara Miles, the spiritual writer as her book: City of God has inspired our own practice here in chaplaincy. In City of God she describes her experience of ‘ashing’ the people of the Mission in San Francisco, where she lives on Ash Wednesday. Inspired by her story, we too set up a ‘mobile ashing’ on Ash Wednesday at the university.
One of the most interesting aspects of Sara Miles is her sudden conversion experience. Sara Miles was a war journalist, and writer, working in Central America and the US. She was an atheist, raised by parents who deliberately did not expose their children to institutional religion. They felt their own parents, who had been missionaries, had given them too much religion, and they vowed not to do this to their children. As Sara grew up, she was commitment to social and humanitarian action and this became her religion.
In her book, Take this bread, she writes about the cloudy Sunday morning, aged forty-six, when she drifted into St. Gregory of Nyssa’s church in San Francisco, went up to the altar and took communion. Until that moment, she had been an atheist. At best she was indifferent to religion. She was horrified by the acts of war she had seen in the name of God and by the treatment of LGBT people by the church.
Unbaptised, unprepared, she took her first communion and everything changed.
‘Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations, to a faith I’d scorned, and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer after all, but actual food – indeed the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized, what I’d been doing with my life all along, was what I was meant to do: feed people. And so I did. I took communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going, compelled to find new ways to share what I’d experienced.’
She found her conversion to be unexpected and terribly unlikely. She described herself as a ‘blue-state, secular intellectual; a lesbian, a left-wing journalist with a habit of scepticism.’ Yet is finding God, she found an inclusive religion, rooted in the most ordinary, yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the poor, the despised and the outcasts are honoured. And so she became a Christian, to the horror of her friends.
Her theology focuses on communion, she sees this as the act that locates us within a group, and from communion, comes community. Sara was propelled into extending the communion she received in the extended communion of setting up a food pantry for those in need in 2000.
Starting the food pantry, she gave away literally tons of food around the same altar where she’d first received the body of Christ. This was her understanding of companionship – she took bread, shared it with Jesus and then shared it with all who needed it. Her book, Take this Bread, inspired many churches to set up foodbanks.
She encountered many struggles: her family, her doubting friends, the prejudices and traditions of her newfound church. She met all sorts of people in her work, which had now extended all over the city of San Fransisco and beyond: thieves, homeless, millionaires, politicians, bishops.
At first, Sara saw a church community that was open, diverse, welcoming. It did not divide or judge people based on income gender, age, politics, or sexual identity. However, in church culture, she encountered an obsession with rules and procedure. And when she tried to extend the food pantry from weekdays to Sunday, she hit a new wall of opposition. She tried to argue that the Sunday pantry would bring in new people and some of them might join the church and change it in exciting ways. But she found that the food pantry feeding people on more than a weekday – on a Sunday, really pushed the comfort zone of many in the church.
‘Why do we need to grow?’ a longtime member challenged her. ‘We’re just fine as we are.’ ‘Sunday is too much’, an older woman shouted at her. ‘I’ve been coming here for more than fifteen years, and Sunday is my day of rest.’Now it seemed as if the dream of open communion and community – an invitation of Jesus – who welcomed sinners and ate with them, as was inscribed on the altar, was being put aside because of inconvenience, messiness and prejudice.
Most if them made a point of praising the food pantry, but their message was clear: Feeding the hungry belonged in its place, and ‘real church’ belonged on Sundays. Sara was shocked. She believed the food pantry represented the best of St. Gregory’s practices and values: its openness, its inclusion, its invitation to take part in creating something together. A former Jesuit, who sang in the choir, took Sara aside, pointing out that she was not the first person to get excited about doing Jesus’ work and then get disappointed in his church. ‘Get over yourself’, he said, not unkindly. ‘Welcome to Christianity’.
Later, Sara had what can be called a second epiphany and conversion. She says, ‘You can’t be a Christian by yourself. You can’t be special or more holy.’ ‘I was going to have to work with people I liked at St. Gregory’s, and the ones who really irritated me.’ Quoting Rowan Williams, she said, ‘Community is a Gospel imperative that we find hard.’
Eventually, the grace of God enabled her to come to terms with her fellow but doubting members, just as they came to terms with her fervour. The strain of living the Gospel, commitment to prayer, the Eucharist, community, and care for those in need seemed to transcend the very human disagreements and frustrations she experienced.
When asked in an interview, What’s the most important thing about Christianity to you? She replied:
The gritty reality of incarnation: that God lives in bodies. And the truth that Jesus doesn’t pick and choose his dinner companions. He eats with everyone: not just with ‘good’ people, or the right kind of Christians, or the people I happen to like. Eating the body and blood of Christ, for me, implies a radical inclusivity that demands action. If you take it seriously, communion challenges everything —including most religion. (Article in the San Francisco Gate, 26 February, 2007)