Holy Food and Groceries

March 10, 2010

Every week, the Food Pantry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, California, gives away 11 tons of food from the altar in the middle of the sanctuary, to anyone who shows up, no questions asked.

Journalist Sara Miles, who founded the food pantry in 2000, put it into theological perspective during a conversation at Trinity Wall Street, New York, on March 5. "The Gospel forces us to see that the bread of heaven and macaroni are meant for everyone without exception," she said.

Miles has written two books about her experience with the pantry and at St. Gregory's: "Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion" and "Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, and Raising the Dead."

The people who gathered at Trinity understand where she's coming from. Most lead or work with food pantries, street churches, and drop-in shelters in their own communities.

"The food pantry is not a social service program," she said. "It's a Eucharistic community. By eating together in thanksgiving, by making Eucharist together, we will taste God: holy food and groceries."

One of the key elements of that community is its emphasis on volunteers who, according to Miles, "do it all" at the food pantry. "All kinds of inappropriate, unqualified people."

The rules are simple: anyone can participate in giving away the pantry's food. You can be homeless and volunteer. You can be a junkie. But you can't be high and you can't steal food. And when a volunteer is given a new job, he or she is asked to identify two more people whom they will pass that work along to, as well.

Giving away work and authority is no easy task for Miles, a self-described control freak. But she sees it as a key element to an authentic, successful food pantry. Too often, she said, churches work for -- but not with -- the people they are trying to serve.

"If you want your food program to die, do it for them," she said bluntly.

The people listening to Miles know something about the challenges of ministry with and not for people.

"How do you not lose it?" one participant asked.

Miles acknowledged that, like anyone else, she does lose it on occasion.

"It's really hard," she said. "It's not fair how people behave. God is merciful, not just. This work allows you to experience conversion in an ongoing way, which is not always a pleasant process."

Following Miles' presentation and sharing Holy Communion, the workshop participants had an opportunity talk with each other about their ministries -- a rare opportunity for some.

Mary Eaton, who leads the Wooster Fellowship, a non-denominational outdoor church in Wooster, Massachusetts, called Miles' presentation "a reaffirmation."

Steve Ruelke, who runs Ekklesia Newburgh, a street church in Newburgh, New York, said that the workshop was "a reminder we're not there alone. I know Mary's up in Wooster doing same thing, in her style."

Valeria Vasilevski and Phillip Trimble are new to both Trinity and the kind of ministry some of their fellow participants have been doing for years. Practicing Buddhists, they saw a sign calling for volunteers for Trinity's Brown Bag Lunch program last October while attending a Trinity Choir concert. Since then, they have become two of the program's most dedicated volunteers, providing lunch to anyone who's hungry every Tuesday and Thursday in Trinity's churchyard.

"The Brown Bag is very compatible with Buddhism because both place great emphasis on giving rather than receiving," Trimble said.

Vasilevski echoed Miles' point about a ministry's community.

"We've really bonded -- the volunteers and the people who come as our guests," Vasilevski said. "People want lunch, but they're also hungry for something else."

"A spiritual life is a physical life," Miles said. "What are we here to do on Friday and Sunday? We are here to raise the dead."