Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #24: Favorite book about giving

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Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion by Sara Miles
(bonus: a smitch of Christianity for Christmas Eve)

As she'll tell you from page 1, Sara Miles is not your traditional (American) Christian. Raised by atheists (themselves raised by missionaries, and soured on the whole thing), she had a child as a single mother, came out as a lesbian, found her best mentors in restaurant kitchen work, and was deeply involved in leftist international activism. One day for no explainable reason, she walked into a church in San Francisco, and was blown away by the ritual of Communion. It's pretty strange and powerful stuff if it hits you right: Christ feeding people with his body, people feeding each other, regardless of whether they're handing the holy foodstuff to a lover or friend or enemy or stranger or beggar. "Take this bread," is the command. "Feed my sheep."

With years of experience of the power of eating together from her restaurant work, Miles saw the potential of this gesture, and made it even bigger. She talked the church into letting her turn the sanctuary into a free food kitchen, and kept on feeding the hungry, including the homeless and the violent and the insane and the lost and bewildered, and the liberal but kind of freaked-out church members who took her in and learned from her. She created an incredible community through the literal act of breaking bread together, and her work goes on and grows.

Sara Miles is one of the most honest and original voices on the subjects of faith and activism that I've ever read. Her book is utterly compelling as a memoir of a spiritual life and as an inspiration to translate elation into action, to do the good you know is there to be done with the tools that you have. She seems to me part of a moment in literary and political circles, where there's the potential for a spirit of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King (rather than, sorry Mom, Dr. Dobson), where we can understand that the Kingdom of God is a real/metaphorical place, where there is a lot less of the demand for doctrinal agreement and personal moral perfection and a lot more of the compassion and redemption and transcendence and giving and justice and peace.

Tonight I'll be at the Christmas Eve services at Old First in Brooklyn. I'll be far from my family, because we can't afford to travel this year. My bookstore remains a dream in a dark economy. And I expect I will probably cry (much to the ALP's dismay) at the beauty of it all -- the dark sanctuary full of people longing for mystery, the little lights in the darkness, the sense of something impossibly big and good coming into the world in the body of a Middle Eastern refugee's baby. I'm so grateful for the gifts I've been given this year: for books and community and love and home and good work to do and faith and peace. I'm so grateful for what I've been allowed to give. This next year, I want to learn how to give more.

After this I'm taking a little vacation until after the new year. I wish you and yours a beautiful, wonderful holiday, and a happy New Year.