Sunday, May 9, 2010

True Conversions No. 4: Sara Miles (again)

Jesus Freak: feeding, healing, raising the dead
Sara Miles
Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, c.2010
171 pp. hardbound, US$21.95
ISBN: 978-0-470-48166-0

This is a great book with an unfortunate title. Jesus freak ? Visions of flower children dance in one’s head. That’s definitely not what this book is about. JF is basically the sequel to Miles’s hard-hitting spiritual memoir, Take this bread: A Radical Conversion (c.2007). In a way, this most recent literary effort by Miles—the “feeding’ segment, in particular—takes up where its predecessor left off. The rest of the book is an extended meditation on the meaning of the presence of Christ as healer and reconciler — embodied/ incarnated in the experience of suffering of the poor and those dedicated to accompanying them.

Feeding. The Food Pantry, which Miles founded while a member of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco shortly after her initial conversion experience in the mid-Nineties, has now blossomed into a regional network of some 18 pantries for the poor. The Portrero Hill site presently offers free groceries on a weekly basis to upwards of 800 families and individuals. Throughout this surge, Miles has maintained her determination to continue to offer a sense of genuine eucharist (and Eucharist) to all comers. All are fed. In fact, volunteers are especially well fed, with a home-cooked meal prepared for them each Friday before the doors open to the public. The Pantry’s radical sense of inclusion— its stubborn ‘no questions asked’ policy— makes it oddly invincible. Miles reflects: “We had everything we needed because we gave everything away: we were invincible because we offered power and authority, just like food, to everyone.” A teen volunteer concurs: “…it’s cool how people can’t take advantage of you.”

Miles’ focus here is almost exclusively on her own project. It is important, even extraordinary work. But it would be helpful if she had put it in the context of the impressive array of nonprofit projects throughout The City which also serve the poor-- often heroically: e.g., Project Open Hand, Glide Memorial Methodist Church, and our own Franciscan-inspired St. Anthony’s Dining Room, which feeds up to 3,000 free meals daily to the poor.

Healing, raising the dead. If Miles’ entire book were concerned solely with the work of The Food Pantry, it would serve primarily as an informative sequel to her culinary cum spiritual endeavors. Thankfully, it doesn’t stop there. Instead, Miles plunges into a fervent and feverish reprise of the Gospels-- a relentless reflection on its meaning and relevance to her own experience. She’s on a spiritual truffle hunt and doesn’t come home empty handed. In this literal —“hunting for the Gospel in our own stories”—she branches out from The Food Pantry to work with a group of health care professionals based at nearby San Francisco General Hospital. Here she encounters dedicated women and men determined to instill meaning as well as technical/professional efficiency in their work: “Healing’, here, “(is) about creating meaning. What was our suffering, the suffering of others really for?” Miles’ responds with the ‘answer’ of Jesus: “… the answer to all the questions of our lives. Sickness, war, falling in love, going to the grocery store: everything happens so that God’s works might be revealed.”

While Miles the journalist reports on her active participation in projects aimed at feeding the hungry and healing the sick, Miles the convert (but no longer the neophyte) sinks her roots (and teeth) more deeply into the Christian faith: “I realized how my continuing conversion depended on being thrown together in intimate ways with all kinds of strangers I hadn’t chosen.” And, one might add, all kinds of experiences, impressions, and ideas she had not countenanced either. Miles appears to want to take things and shake them up to see what they’re really made of. In this, she is willing to be unorthodox, even “heretical”— while not taking herself too seriously in the process. (In Miles’ argot, Jesus The Beloved becomes The Boyfriend, for example. Cute, but a little annoying after a while)…. With relish, she takes on the issue of authority, especially the authority of The Church. Miles brings communion (and Communion) to the homebound; she anoints the sick; she listens to confessions; she buries the dead. Why, she asks, as do others—why is this sacramental life and power restricted to ordained ministers of The Church? Jesus trusts us (all of us) to do his work, she submits.

Miles goes further in her exploration and theological inquiry, ever willing to push the envelope. She meets Anibal Mejia, a psychologist working with the desperately poor, who is also a priest in the Brazilian Candomble tradition. Her gets her thinking about and questioning The Church’s resistance to and rejection of cultural/ theological syncretism…. At one point, she entertains the notion that religion itself is an enemy of the Gospel. She proposes her own definitions here as “a set of ideas about God, purified and abstracted from ongoing relationship with God. And from religion springs sin: the attempt to separate ourselves from others, the failure to see everyone as an inseparable part of God’s body.” Isn’t Miles painting with a rather broad brush here? Is religion itself, rather than its abuse, the real culprit?

Yet, Miles’ frankness, her willingness to cast a broad net, to address people, experiences, and ideas fearlessly is in part what makes her faith so dynamic, intense, and – well, so downright attractive. In that regard, one is wondering when and how Miles will come up for air, take a giant step back—zoom out and reflect on the whole body and trajectory of this intensely active faith lfe. Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves; Miles has the whole goshdarn four Gospels on hers.

In a reflective moment, she considers the enduring effects of her conversion: “In my new life with The Boyfriend, I wasn’t particularly nicer, but I was freer. I wasn’t more holy, but I felt more blessed. And I knew that to the extent new life was real in any of us, it had sprung, just as Jesus promised, actual feeding, healing, forgiving. It didn’t come from the sky, but from plates of enchiladas, the bruises of strangers, frustration and tears.” Amen.

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