Review : Why the Book "Jesus Freak" Knocked My Socks Off
The hardest part in reviewing the book "Jesus Freak" by Sara Miles -- a book that my inner cynic thought I would dislike before I read it -- is that I want to reprint the whole thing here so you can wash your soul in its heartbreaking and inspiring beauty with me.
Sara Miles was raised by atheist parents. A war correspondent and then journalist in San Francisco, Sara Miles converted to Christianity at age 46. She is a lesbian, in a 14-year relationship with her wife. She was a skeptical intellectual. And she now runs a huge food pantry in San Francisco that operates out of St Gregory of Nyssa's. It is held -- not buried away in the basement, not in the parish hall -- but in the sanctuary. They serve over 500-600 people a week.
At a moment when right-wing American Christianity is ascendant, when religion worldwide is rife with fundamentalism and exclusionary ideological crusades, I stumbled into a radically inclusive faith centered on sacraments and action. What I found wasn't about angels, or going to church, or trying to be 'good' in a pious, idealized way. It wasn't about arguing a doctrine — the Virgin birth, predestination, the sinfulness of homosexuality and divorce — or pledging blind allegiance to a denomination. I was, as the prophet said, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. I found it at the eternal and material core of Christianity: body, blood, bread, wine poured out freely, shared by all. I discovered a 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 honored.
And so I became a Christian, claiming a faith that many of my fellow believers want to exclude me from; following a God my unbelieving friends see as archaic superstition. At a time when Christianity in America is popularly represented by ecstatic teen crusaders in suburban megachurches, slick preachers proclaiming the "gospel" of prosperity, and shrewd political organizers who rail against evolution, gay marriage and stem-cell research, it's crucial to understand what faith actually means in the lives of people very different from one another.
But the real story of her book, Jesus Freak, is the story of the food pantry -- a place where the volunteers are not just church members, they are members of the community being served -- they are the same people who fill their weekly bags with food. Every week, about 50 volunteers sit down for a meal together, and then they open the doors and pack up food for whoever comes through them. There are no "qualifications" to get free food. No one has to fill out forms.
Her book is full of stories of the Food Pantry, and her search for meaning in her faith. Miles says, "Sharing food in this way was about making whole new lives possible. At the food pantry we drank out of the same cups, and put our sick, scarred hands on each other. And sometimes, when we thought we were just going to have lunch, we tasted heaven."(p. xvi)
There are stories of unlikely volunteers becoming stalwarts of the team, stories of comforting the dying, and stories of finding God in the faces of everyone she meets. She and her team, her community, live out the radical Gospel, the love that includes all and is not dependent on any one institution. "Culture," she says, that great human yeast, continued to rise and swell and sour the flesh-and-blood experience of God in every time and place...Yet all religions...even the most liberal, were tempted by the reactionary impulse to freeze faith in place. Because, as Jesus teaches, it is easy to be threatened by the reality of the complicated, messy, syncretic, God-bearing truth that becomes incarnate among us and makes all things new. We'd rather have a dead religion than a living God."(p. 137)
Sara is unabashedly in love with God. She takes delight in walking the path of Christ -- for her it is more a dance. Yet there is no Easter-bunny sentimentality in her. She lives in the gritty reality of death and resurrection every day. She is there with the sick, the infirm. In addition to the working poor, she feeds mentally ill people, marginalized people, dirty people, street people that are used to being rejected, cast away.
And sometimes it is hard. She formed a group for exhausted care-givers at one point.
She wrestles with forgiveness in her life -- and learns about it from surprising sources. She opens her heart every moment of every day. The characters of the Pantry will be memorable to all who read this inspiring and uplifting book. You'll want to know them, know what happens to them. You'll want to help them.
Sara Miles speaks of her theology.
In a 2006 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, she was asked the following question:
Q: People often talk about a divide in this country between the secular left and the religious right. Where do you fall in that scheme?
A: I know that there are a lot of Christians who don't think I ought to be allowed in the club. Luckily, Christianity is not a club. It is, as my favorite patriarchal, misogynist, homophobic apostle -- St. Paul -- said, a body. "There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female anymore. For you are all one in Jesus Christ." What counts is not who you are. Your human status is not the point.
When I started this book, I thought I would find a preachy, airy book about conversion and doctrine. Instead I found a gift of meaning, a shared struggle, a beacon of hope -- a true communion.
~~ Contributing Editor, Mata H. also searches for meaning at Time's Fool