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Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion
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Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion

3.8 17
by Sara Miles

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"Mine is a personal story of an unexpected and terribly inconvenient Christian conversion, told by a very unlikely convert."
-Sara Miles

Raised as an atheist, Sara Miles lived an enthusiastically secular life as a restaurant cook and a writer. Then early one winter morning, for no earthly reason, she wandered into a church. "I was certainly not interested


"Mine is a personal story of an unexpected and terribly inconvenient Christian conversion, told by a very unlikely convert."
-Sara Miles

Raised as an atheist, Sara Miles lived an enthusiastically secular life as a restaurant cook and a writer. Then early one winter morning, for no earthly reason, she wandered into a church. "I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian," she writes, "or, as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut." But she ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine, and found herself radically transformed.

The mysterious sacrament of communion has sustained Miles ever since, in a faith she’d scorned, in work she’d never imagined. In this astonishing story, she tells how the seeds of her conversion were sown, and what her life has been like since she took that bread.

A lesbian left-wing journalist who covered revolutions around the world, Miles was not the woman her friends expected to see suddenly praising Jesus. She was certainly not the kind of person the government had in mind to run a "faith-based charity." Religion for her was not about angels or good behavior or piety; it was about real hunger, real food, and real bodies. Before long, she turned the bread she ate at communion into tons of groceries, piled on the church’s altar to be given away. The first food pantry she established provided hundreds of poor, elderly, sick, deranged, and marginalized people with lifesaving food and a sense of belonging. Within a few years, the loaves had multiplied, and she and the people she served had started nearly a dozen more pantries.

Take This Bread is rich with real-life Dickensian characters - church ladies, child abusers, millionaires, schizophrenics, bishops, and thieves - all blown into Miles’s life by the relentless force of her newfound calling. She recounts stories about trudging through the rain in housing projects, wiping the runny nose of a psychotic man, storing a battered woman’s .375 Magnum in a cookie tin. She writes about the economy of hunger and the ugly politics of food; the meaning of prayer and the physicality of faith. Here, in this achingly beautiful, passionate book, is the living communion of Christ.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Where is it written that literary women must move to coastal California (if they don't already live there), become Episcopalians and write conversion memoirs? Miles, like recent memoirists Diana Butler Bass, Nora Gallagher and Lindsey Crittenden, loves Jesus and detests the religious right, though she is also critical of "the sappy, Jesus-and-cookies tone of mild-mannered liberal Christianity." Mild-mannered she is not. Converted at age 46 when she impulsively walked into a church and received communion for the first time, the former war correspondent suddenly understood her life's mission: to feed the hungry. What her parish needed, she decided, was a food pantry—and within a year (and over opposition from some fellow parishioners) she had started one that offered free cereal, fruit and vegetables to hundreds of San Francisco's indigent every Friday. Not willing to turn anyone away, she raised funds and helped set up other food pantries in impoverished areas, occasionally "crossing the line from self-righteous do-gooder to crusading zealot." For Miles, Christianity "wasn't an argument I could win, or even resolve. It wasn't a thesis. It was a mystery that I was finally willing to swallow." Grittier than many religious memoirs, Miles's story is a perceptive account of one woman's wholehearted, activist faith. (Feb. 20)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Hunger and yearning, both literal and figurative, are the threads running through Miles's (founder, St. Gregory's Food Pantry, San Francisco) journey from atheist to religious activist. Miles is a self-described "secular intellectual lesbian left-wing journalist." She found a home at St. Gregory's in an inclusive faith focused on the least among us, where she could wrestle with the uncertainty and ambiguity of her faith journey. Some Christians may not want to claim her, while some nonbelievers may be unable to comprehend her conversion. But all will be moved and challenged by her compelling story. Her identity as a grandchild of missionaries who was raised by atheist parents and her work in Central America and the Philippines shape her story. Taking communion on impulse intersected with her relationship to food, and being fed by Christ and feeding the hungry all came together in a life-changing way. Communion led to community for both Miles and the people served by the food pantry, as well as those at St. Gregory's, who had to stretch to accept her belief that all are holy and her vision of humanity as church. Highly recommended for all public libraries.
—Nancy Almand
From the Publisher
Advance praise for Take This Bread

“A love song to the feast at the altar and the feast of a food pantry written with grit, authority and integrity.”
–Nora Gallagher, author of Changing Light

“Sara Miles’s joy, confusion, and passion for the Christian life, together with her skill as a professional journalist and the fullness of her own humanity, have produced what has to be the finest confession of faith I’ve read in years. Take This Bread is a good, tight, absorbing read.”
–Phyllis Tickle, author of The Divine Hours and former Religion Editor for Publishers Weekly

“This book is a stunner. Beautifully and simply written, it is a wonderfully straightforward account of a life and a conversion which will leave many readers, as it left me, tingling with longing that such signs and wonders might emerge in and through our own stories. Sara has come by the great truths of the Christian faith honestly. The story of how people grow through becoming empowered to be givers, and not mere receivers of handouts is a wonderful glimpse at a true emergence of Church.”
–James Alison, Catholic theologian, priest, and author of Faith Beyond Resentment

“Some books you can’t put down, some you shouldn’t–this one’s both. Sara Miles’s story of spiritual nourishment recalls Patch Adams, but she’s also a writer like John Muir or Jane Addams, a gifted stylist whose passion translates to vivid storytelling. Take This Bread is necessary reading, I would think, for anyone who’s ever taken a bite out of anything.”
–J. C. Hallman, author of The Devil is a Gentleman

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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5.60(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

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Take This Bread

A Radical Conversion
By Sara Miles

Ballantine Books

Copyright © 2007 Sara Miles
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780345486929

The Family Table

My mother nursed a grudge against Christianity for more than fifty years.

Like my father, she was the child of ministers and missiona- ries, descended from long lines of preachers, evangelists, and soldiers of the Lord. My father had been born in the moun- tain provinces of Burma to American Baptists, and my mother carried in a laundry hamper across the ocean to Baghdad, as part of the United Mission in Mesopotamia.

Today's struggles between liberal, ecumenical Christians and fundamentalist evangelicals played out as well in my grandparents' times, as they had for generations before. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some missionaries from America believed it was their duty to rescue the foreign poor from hunger and illness; others focused on winning souls for Jesus. Either way, the ambitions of the missionary movement were inextricably linked with those of empire: In the words of a triumphalist hymn, "From many an ancient river, from many a palmy plain, / They call us to deliver their land from error's chain."

Between the world wars, a call had gone out to "evangelize the world in one generation," and it set fire to small-town churches. All over Ohio and Nebraska and Massachusetts, in little Reformed and Baptist and Presbyterian congregations with no plumbing, dirt-poor farmers contributed dimes to support "our missioners" andsent their children off to China, Japan, Ceylon, Burma, Turkey, Syria, Congo, to "lift the multitudes ignorant of Christ's love," as one evangelist put it, "into understanding of God's fatherly purpose for them."

For a smart, ambitious girl, becoming a missionary was not just about duty and responding to God's will: It meant adventure and escape, and, in a strange way, freedom from gender roles. Missionary work was a break from the previous generation's religion: Instead of putting on gloves, going to church, and reciting prayers, a young woman could travel alone across the world, tasting danger and testing herself far from the constraints of home. Girls who had obediently bowed their heads in pews became, abroad, imbued with new authority: white, foreign, representatives of a powerful country and a mighty church. And though teaching children and caring for the sick in a strange country might be lonely and grueling, faith, for these young women, meant hurling their own bodies into action, "joining the band," as my grandmother wrote, of the brave and the true.

My father's mother, Margaret, was the child of a New England artist and transcendentalist; her own mystical passion for God propelled her into missionary work. A slight woman, she kept a daily journal as she began her arduous ten-day journey, by pony, through the mountain passes of the Shan Province to her new home in a clearing hacked out of the jungle. With her husband, Max, a painfully shy doctor, she set up a medical mission in what's now called the "Golden Triangle"--the humid, unbelievably remote part of Burma where my father was born. They worshipped in "a bare little room, roughly made of dark, unfinished brown wood," as she wrote in a tract published by the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society. "The women wear silk skirts of green or rose or silvery grey with a Chinese pattern; their black hair is smoothly coiled and decorated with flowers. Some of the men who have been down country wear the Burmese loonyi, a skirt like a woman's of brilliant silk, and on their heads a bright silk scarf, knotted at the ear. They are all barefooted, as is the preacher. . . . The babies are allowed to crawl about the floor and offer remarks of their own, and dogs may stay if they behave."

Margaret had few illusions about the relative enlightenment of her own culture. "The problems of our little Shan church seem delicate and difficult, and our responsibility is very great, for the Shans still lean dangerously upon the missionaries. We hear ourselves constantly mentioned in their prayers-- the three 'mamas' and the great teacher who have come so far to help them--come from the wonderful country of America, a sort of earthly paradise where everyone is wealthy, and everyone is happy, and everyone is good. Would you feel flattered in our places, or would you feel deeply humiliated, as we do?"

It was a sentiment that my mother's mother, Helen, would have echoed. She was drawn by the Social Gospel of the time, seeking justice and an end to war through the teachings of Jesus. The brilliant daughter of an impoverished Ohio minister, Helen served at a mission school for girls in Japan, where she met and married my grandfather David, a Christian teacher with a burning desire to right wrong. "Imperialism and exploitation," he wrote, "spheres of influence, trade barriers, unequal distribution of the world's goods, starvation in the midst of plenty, slums with gold coasts next door, poverty supporting luxury: These are marks of an unChristian world."

After completing work together for the divinity degree--a degree Helen was not awarded, because of her sex--my grandparents went to Iraq in 1929 with the United Mission in Mesopotamia, traveling through Lebanon and Syria, eating with tribal sheiks in tents, visiting the Kurdish north, and nursing my mother through various fevers in a Baghdad home overgrown with roses. One of my mother's first memories was of lying in her crib, listening to the group of British and American missionaries stationed in Baghdad singing the hymn of their calling: "Shall we whose souls are lighted with wisdom from on high, / Shall we to men benighted the lamp of life deny?"

In the baby book she kept for my mother, Helen wrote the homey details of daily life amid the exotic. "You were thrilled at eating dinner in a 'Maskus hotel' and sleeping in a big bed. The next morning we started on to Baghdad, where our new home was to be. It was a miserable trip, thirty-one hours in length. During the two days of our stay in Damascus, it had rained almost continuously. Sometimes the desert becomes almost impassable because of rain, and often cars will get stuck in the middle of the desert for two or three days or even a week. We set off with trepidation."

Returning home, the young minister and his wife took a church in Baltimore and began to integrate it. As difficult as it may often have felt to be a missionary in a strange land, it was unspeakably harder to anger and disappoint white Americans of their own class and background, but they persisted, moving to Missouri, then New York, joining with the prophetic left wing of the American church in a battle for civil rights that would last their lives. Both sets of grandparents grew more firmly rooted in the ecumenical movement, fighting the conservative and evangelical forces of their day.

But for Matthew and Betty, the children of these Christian activists, the church was neither an adventure nor a calling. While my parents cherished memories of stars in the desert, elephants, tropical rainstorms, and dates, the repressed, small-town American churches both families returned to when their children were young were suffocating.

"I hated the 'You have to be good because God says so,' " recalled my mother. "I hated being preached at. Everything was about guilt." Even before she was a teenager, my mother had decided she didn't believe in God, rejecting what she called "the whole unbelievable, illogical concept" that her parents assumed was the obvious truth. She didn't believe in angels, she didn't believe in heaven, she didn't believe that dead people would come magically back to life. Horrified as a child by pictures of the crucifixion, she couldn't stand the "blood" of the Lord's Supper and refused to pretend the grape juice her father poured reverently into little cups was anything but grape juice. "You'll grow up and see," my grandmother told her. It was inconceivable to Helen--or to my father's parents, who had written out prayers for him to recite each day since he was four years old--that anyone raised in a Christian home would ever choose, really, to leave the faith.

My mother and father left as soon as they could, falling in love at a progressive secular college when my father returned from occupied Japan, where he had served as an army translator. The two of them understood each other profoundly: Though proud of their parents' social activism, they'd emerged from their missionary childhoods with a deep unease about what mission historian William Hutchison called "Christians' supposed 'right,' anchored in a revelation acknowledged only by Christian believers, to displace other religions and effect a spiritual conquest of other nations." My mother still smarted from the basic intellectual affront she'd felt as a child when told to repeat aloud things she felt were untrue; my father, a sociologist, couldn't accept believers' claim that they were entitled by God to pressure complete strangers into accepting one culture's version of religious truth. Like so many of their generation in the post-Holocaust world, my parents felt the concept of God was finished, a pointless relic. Why would you have to believe in God to do good--and how could you justify the terrible evils done in God's name? They married and moved to the twenty-three-dollar-a-month cold-water apartment in Greenwich Village where I was born. My parents never opened Bibles again, and we grew up with my mother railing, in an extremely ecumenical way, against the very idea of faith.

She rolled her eyes equally at the crusades of Billy Graham, Jews for Jesus, and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. She was infuriated by White House prayer breakfasts and politicians who mentioned God. My mother granted that many ordinary believers were sincere, but remained incredulous about their credulity: "Honestly," she'd say, "How in the world can they believe that stuff?"

I certainly didn't. I had loved my grandparents but been incurious about their faith: Like wearing ironed white shirts or reusing waxed paper to wrap sandwiches, religion just seemed another thing that old people did. So even when one grandmother marched with the NAACP for civil rights, then another got arrested protesting at a military base, I didn't connect their surprising activism with the obscure rituals they practiced on Sundays.

Those rituals--the hymns, the piety, the claustrophobic niceness of church ladies, the bland boiled dinners every Sunday--had ruled my mother's childhood. She could not swallow it. Instead, she and my father taught us how good it tasted to escape convention, to eat garlic, to travel fearlessly. They loved good food, books, and music; they raised us with boundless love, liberal politics, and secular morals: "Different people are different" was the maxim we absorbed. They hated the Vietnam War and let us go to demonstrations; the upheavals of the 1960s were thrilling rather than threatening to them. My parents never went to church--not on Easter, not at Christmas--and didn't have friends who did; our Sundays were for reading the New York Times, listening to Vivaldi on the record player, eating artichokes and mussels, aioli and lemon ice.

My parents went to foreign films, took us to Europe to visit friends, and taught us to read between the lines of a newspaper, but they skimped, to say the least, on religious education. I had a book of Greek myths, with extravagantly colored pictures of gods and goddesses in flowing robes, but no idea who Abraham or Isaiah or Mary were. "Some people," my father said to me once, as if patiently explaining the customs of a faraway tribe, "believe that Jesus was a god." He paused. "And some people think he was just a very, very good man. A teacher." In our modern, professional circles, where only the Italian kids from the neighborhood went to church, and the Jews just believed in psychoanalysis, our family didn't stand out. My parents' atheism proclaimed this world, in its physical beauty and fascinating human complexity, as what mattered. We believed them. My sister, Ellen, loved music and books; my brother, David, and I learned to cook; by the time I was in tenth grade, I knew how to grill a fish and bake a crunchy baguette. We all soaked up experience: sex, travel, drugs, food, hard physical work--anything that would take us further into the sensual, immediate world that my parents insisted was the opposite of religion.


Excerpted from Take This Bread by Sara Miles Copyright © 2007 by Sara Miles. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Sara Miles is the author of How to Hack a Party Line: The Democrats and Silicon Valley and co-editor of Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan and the anthology Opposite Sex: Gay Men on Lesbians, Lesbians on Gay Men. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Progressive, La Jornada, and Salon, among others. She has written extensively on military affairs, politics, and culture. She lives in San Francisco with her family. Visit the her website at www.saramiles.net.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Food for the hungry, both in body and spirit, Sara Miles has told of her own conversion to Christianity. She was a middle aged woman who was reared by atheistic parents.She is a journalist who has traveled the world in wars and troubles and wherever she was, she was fed. Hunger was the need that bound people together.The common need of hunger caused coworkers and strangers to share whatever food was available. When Sara, for no reason known to her, entered St. Gregory's Episcopal Church in San Francisco, she was given bread at communion. Her life changed. This is an excellent read.
JustinNC More than 1 year ago
A liberal woman with a plethora of life experiences finds herself, and I would say her very soul, in the simple act of feeding and eating. Though her narrative, one can really see Miles' recurring theme of feeding others. It can be seen in a variety of ways, but what she eventually finds is that while her call to feed others permeates her life and is her driving force, at the same time she also needs to be fed. It is through many experiences that culminates in one of the most powerful Communion experiences I have ever heard/read. This book is by far, one of the best memoirs that I have read. Miles is instantly relatable and a fantastic writer. Through the sharing of her experiences she causes one to look back on one's own journey and see what spiritual hand has been played in their lives. She also has helped me to view communion and the act of feeding others as esteemed and holy an act as they should be! This is a great book, easy to read, and you won't want to put it down! You may not agree with her "theology", but you can't debate her experiences and where those experiences led her! Two thumbs up and 5 stars to Sara Miles!
Corrvin_Smith More than 1 year ago
I've been told by several friends, Christian and non-Christian, that the best (or even only) way for a Christian to make others WANT to convert is to lead by example. Miles' narrative, in which she converts to Christianity, becomes part of an active church, and then leads others to reach out and build a food bank for the community, is not only a single Christian's story. It's an example that shows us all what we're capable of being and how anyone can be changed by the power of belief and inspiration. One point Ms. Miles makes is that it's important not only for us to help others, but that even the poorest person NEEDS to be able to give help as well as receive it. I've been inspired by this book to join my own church's Benevolence group and I'm helping brainstorm ways for us to help the community as a whole better-- and, I hope, to share our own talents and abilities to help those we help to give something forward. Ms. Miles also shares, very briefly, that many Christians have different beliefs on some issues of sin, but that regardless of those beliefs, we all ought to work together to help each other. One difference that comes up briefly is that Ms. Miles is a lesbian, and continues to have a warm relationship with her partner, who accepts and confirms her Christianity without any desire to convert; and some of those whose work helps with the food bank believe (unlike Ms. Miles) that this is wrong of her to do. Despite this very personal difference, those who disagree are presented simply as Christians with different opinions, not as terrible people or enemies. This is a warm and loving book that should be read by anyone who wants to learn more about the Christian charity tradition-- with the warning that it may make you want to volunteer yourself!
HGB84 More than 1 year ago
Sara Miles will change the way you view church, communion, and charity. She writes from a very real place that doesn't hide the truth about the work behind feeding people. If you finish this book uninspired, please read it again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Having been raised as a Christian, I took the basic tenets of my faith for granted. Sara Miles' "Aha! moment" led me to experience communion with new eyes. Her desire to feed others as Christ feeds us is inspiring.
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