Yesterday was Ginger’s last Sunday of vacation, so I spent the morning, once more, reading Sara Miles. The heart of her book is about starting a food pantry at her church in San Francisco. In the process of telling her story, she says some profound and confrontive things about faith and action.
As a grateful member of the United Church of Christ, I’m a part of a denomination that willingly owns the labels “liberal” and “progressive.” Words like justice, peace, and inclusiveness are a regular part of our vocabulary. Someone has said if Christianity were a neighborhood, the UCC would be the last house on the left. When I read about Miles’ Episcopal church in San Francisco, I imagine her congregation is not so different from the ones I’ve known in the UCC: mostly well-off and well-intentioned white people whose faith matters to them and who as averse to being made uncomfortable by their faith as anyone else. I think we do want our faith to matter to us and what we do with our lives to matter to God and to others, and it’s hard to break out of our patterns of faith, action, and relationship to be converted and transformed by the Spirit.
As Miles talked about the growing pains and gains of the food pantry, she said, “We were all converting: turning into new people as we rubbed up against each other” (138). I immediately thought of fiddlehead ferns. (Didn’t you?) To clean fiddleheads before you cook them, you put them in water and rub them up against each other. The dark outer layer – dirt, skin, whatever – comes off leaving a beautifully bright green skin that sparkles in the sauté pan. They don’t clean up well one by one; they have to rub up against each other to be transformed.
As she began to get to know the people who came to the food pantry and then volunteered to help run it, Miles writes,
Where had all the people like Nirmala been, all the years that St. Gregory’s was holding services and trying to entice worshippers, one or two at a time, into the experimental liturgy?The people who came to get food at the pantry had been, to regular middle-class churchgoers, basically like Jesus – that is, invisible. We knew they were there, but we couldn’t see them, and their sufferings and loveliness were imagined, not incarnate in a specific body.But as I got to know them, I started to ee more clearly now the people who came to the pantry were like me: messed up, often prickly or difficult, yearning for friendship. I saw how they were hungry, the way I was. And then, I had a glimpse of them being like Jesus again: as God, made flesh and blood. (128-29)
I picked up my pen and wrote in the margin of my book, “How do we make church more physical, more visceral?”
Chef made a mistake during service last night. He knew we were going to be busier than usual for a Sunday because of the holiday weekend, but he only put one dishwasher on the schedule. Since Sunday is usually Chef’s day off and he worked, he left about eight-thirty. As Ashad and I were cleaning up after service, he commented on the huge stack of dishes that faced Leonardo, our Brazilian dishwasher who leaves work at eleven or so to go to his second all night job.
“We should help him,” Ashad said.
I finished wiping off the counters and headed back to the dish room. I started rinsing things out and stacking them so Leo could begin washing. Ashad joined in a couple of minutes later and began putting away the things that were clean. By staying an extra twenty minutes we had cleared the dish area and kept Leo from being there for a couple of extra hours. Sous saw what we were doing and had a couple of cold beers waiting for us to say thank you. It wasn’t about doing the dishes nearly as much as it was about helping Leonardo. We work together, we rub up against each other; we are being transformed.
This morning, my friend Jay, who is staying with us for the weekend, told me about a story he saw on the Today Show about an organization called Kiva that makes micro-loans to people around the world who are trying to get out of poverty. Since the organization was founded in 2005, they have loaned almost $11 million from 94,000 lenders to fund almost 15,000 loans averaging about $650 each. The repayment rate on the loans is 99.72%. The average lender gives in $25 increments. I found this Frontline documentary, which gives a more personal picture of the process:
The first week Sara Miles and her friends opened the food pantry they served thirty people. Now, on average, they serve 500 families a week. The food is set up in the sanctuary of the church and people come in, ten at a time, with grocery sacks and “shop” for what they want. The pantry is staffed almost completely by people who were once standing in line to get food. They have become “The Church of the One True Sack,” as she calls it. Miles, again:
This is what gets left out, I was realizing: not just left out of the national public debate but also left out of religious discourse. Politicians talked about welfare – usually to blame and scapegoat – and occasionally made speeches about poverty. There was no shortage of talk about the poor and social service from church leaders off all stripes. But the experiences of people such as my volunteers, the texture and specificity of their incarnate lives, were missing from the story of what Christianity was like now in contemporary America . . .
The thing that astonished me sometimes – listening to tales of terrible damage, psychosis, loss – was not how messed up people could be but how resilient; how, in the depths of suffering, they found ways to adapt and continue . . .
You can’t hope to see God without opening yourself to all God’s creation. (216-17)
At the last church I served, as part of my sermon one Sunday I had people get up and physically change seats as a way of encouraging them to find a new perspective. At deacons’ meeting the next week, one person was less than complimentary of the sermon. “I don’t do come to church to be made uncomfortable,” she said.
As easy as it is to demonize her, when I look at my life I have to admit I understand her sentiment. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that a truly incarnational faith is messy work. Bumping up against one another is uncomfortable, even painful. Christianity would be easier if it were only about ideas and concepts. Perhaps that’s why we emphasize and fight over orthodoxy more than orthopraxy. It’s not so much about believing the right things as it is doing the true things:
Feed my sheep.
Bear one another’s burdens.
Forgive and forgive and forgive.
Love one another.
Ouch and amen.
Also published on Medium.