I’ll tell you about my attitude towards Christians before my conversion. I knew I didn’t like them, even though I didn’t really know any. Well, I knew one Christian, who was a friend – but I just assumed that I didn’t have anything in common with Christians, and I wasn’t very interested in meeting them.
While I was working in Latin America in the 1980s I certainly met Christians I admired very much for what they were doing, but I never really connected that what they did was part of their faith. I was a screaming leftist, and at that time in the US there was an unholy alliance of the Christian right and the conservative political right, so Christians were really marked out by what they stood against. They were against gay people, they were against women; they were against everything apart from guns. It was very hard to imagine there was a Christianity that wasn’t rather cynically ‘in bed’ with the politics of the day.
NOSING INTO A CHURCH
I had never been tempted to go into one of the big American blocky stone churches, but St Gregory’s of Nyssa in San Francisco was a beautiful, unusual building and I was curious to see what it looked like inside. I was a reporter, and being a reporter allows you to be nosy. I walked in and went over to the seating area. It was very quiet, with probably two or three dozen people there for the early service. People stood up and sat down and stood up and sat down and I’m sure there was a sermon, but I don’t remember a word of it.
Somebody said, ‘Now we’re going to walk up to the table.’ We walked up in step, each of us with a hand on someone’s shoulder, singing. We gathered around the table – not in a circle, but in a sort of big mob, pressed up around it – and the somebody, who I later discovered was the priest, was chanting.
I WAS HANDING THE BODY OF CHRIST TO THE BODY OF CHRIST, AND IT COMPLETELY KNOCKED ME DOWN
And then there was a loaf of bread. Real bread. And this woman said, ‘Jesus welcomes everyone to his table. So we offer the bread and wine, which are Christ’s body and blood, to everyone, without exception.’ The ministers came and brought Communion to us and the people passed a chalice to one another.
SHORT-CIRCUITED BY GOD
I didn’t know what this was, but I ate the bread and just had the weirdest sensation. I knew that it was real bread and I knew that it was real wine – kind of horrible wine, as it often is – and I sensed that God, who I did not believe in, was alive. And was in my mouth. It was completely short-circuiting. I burst into tears. And then I got out of there as fast as I could, because I thought a Christian might try to talk to me.
For a while, I tried to convince myself it was craziness; that I was overtired or that I was just feeling emotional. But I couldn’t leave it alone. I was hungry. I wanted to taste it again and to see what that was.
When I went back, I disliked it even more. I was really trying to defend myself as hard as I could against the possibility that this was real. But I kept feeling hungry for more, and I think looking back that’s what has really informed the way I think about faith and the Church. What keeps us going is not our ideas about what’s happening. The thing that keeps us going is hunger.
WOULD YOU HELP?
I returned regularly to the church for a long time. The priest was incredibly smart and simply ignored me. I think if somebody had moved in on me with cheery Christian fellowship it would have been the death knell. But after a few months he said a brilliant, persuasive thing, which was: ‘I notice you keep coming to the early service and you have a strong voice. Would you consider helping out?’
I sort of jumped on it, because it’s like when you’re at a party and you go to help out in the kitchen because you’re shy. It’s something to do. I learned the prayers and I memorised the lines, but then I had to break bread and give it to people. I had to say: ‘Jesus welcomes everyone to his table.’ And the experience of offering Communion to people kind of screwed me up all over again. I was handing the body of Christ to the Body of Christ, and it completely knocked me down.
FOOD BANK AT THE ALTAR
I started a ministry known as The Food Pantry the same weekend I was baptised. It wasn’t like, ‘Well I’m a Christian now, so I have to do something nice for poor people.’ It was more: ‘Jesus welcomes everyone to his table.’ When I was baptised, I promised to continue in the breaking of bread and in fellowship. And I was new to the faith, so I thought you had to mean those things when you said them.
The Food Pantry really was an extension of the Eucharist. It is literally set up around the altar at St Gregory’s. We get the food from the San Francisco food bank and give away about six tons a week. And it isn’t just run by me and church people; just as I had been invited to help out, I approached people on the line and asked, ‘Would you like to lend a hand? Can you help out?’
Many churches do a better job of talking about God than of helping people to have an experience of God, and I don’t just mean in some touchy-feely Californian sort of way. I mean to trust the incarnation. To really trust the incarnation, that that is there, and that everything you need is in your mouth and your body.
My journey to faith was very much about my own temperament and the way that I could be reached. It wasn’t an intellectual argument, it was an experience.
SARA MILES (saramiles.net) is the author of Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion (Canterbury Press Norwich). She was talking to freelance journalist Jonty Langley.