From the Prologue:
One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans — except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.
Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all, but actual food — indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people.
And so I did. I took communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going, compelled to find new ways to share what I’d experienced. I started a food pantry and gave away literally tons of fruit and vegetables and cereal around the same altar where I’d first received the body of Christ. I organized new pantries all over my city to provide hundreds and hundreds of hungry families with free groceries each week. Without committees or meetings or even an official telephone number, I recruited scores of volunteers and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.
My new vocation didn’t turn out to be as simple as going to church on Sundays, folding my hands in the pews and declaring myself ‘saved.’ Nor did my volunteer church work mean talking kindly to poor folks and handing them the occasional sandwich from a sanctified distance. I had to trudge in the rain through housing projects, sit on the curb wiping the runny nose of a psychotic man, take the firing pin out of a battered woman’s .357 Magnum, then stick the gun in a cookie tin in the trunk of my car. I had to struggle with my atheist family, my doubting friends, and the prejudices and traditions of my new-found church. I learned about the great American scandal of the politics of food, the economy of hunger, and the rules of money. I met thieves, child abusers, millionaires, day laborers, politicians, schizophrenics, gangsters and bishops, all blown into my life through the restless power of a call to feed people, widening what I thought of as my ‘community’ in ways that were exhilarating, confusing, often scary.
Mine is a personal story of an unexpected and terribly inconvenient Christian conversion, told by a very unlikely convert: a blue-state, secular intellectual; a lesbian, a left-wing journalist with a habit of skepticism. I’m not the person my reporter colleagues ever expected to see exchanging blessings with street-corner evangelists. I’m hardly the person George Bush had in mind to be running a ‘faith-based charity.’ My own family never imagined that I’d wind up preaching the Word of God and serving communion to a hymn-singing flock.
But as well as an intimate memoir of personal conversion, mine is a political story. 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. Why would any thinking person become a Christian? How can anyone reconcile the hateful politics of much contemporary Christianity with Jesus’ imperative to love? What are the deepest ideas of this contested religion, and what do they mean in real life?
In this book I look at the Gospel that moved me, the bread that changed me and the work that saved me, to begin a spiritual and an actual communion across the divides.
From Chapter Four:
One evening in St. Gregory’s kitchen, after everyone else had left, I heard a confession from a pantry volunteer, who’d brought me what she said was a ‘secret’ in a shopping bag. She had a cast on her leg, and kept looking over her shoulder anxiously, and she made me close the kitchen door. Her boyfriend, who beat her up regularly, had been threatening to kill her, she said, swallowing hard.
“I thought, this is a church, it’ll be safe here,” she said, unwrapping a dirty dishtowel from around a huge .357 Magnum revolver. “I took out the firing pin.”
That’s what church was for, I realized: a place to bring the ugly, frightening secret you couldn’t tell anyone else about. I checked that the gun was disarmed, and stuck it in a cookie tin in a locked closet beneath the pantry shelves. I didn’t mention it to anyone from the Sunday congregation. The woman moved away, to stay with a sister in Sacramento. A month later I did tell Steve.
“You must be kidding,” he said.
“Isn’t this what church is for?” I said.
“Uh, yeah,” said Steve. He looked scared, and like he wanted to laugh at the same time. “Whoa, that’s a really big gun.” We drove down to the local police station, and I walked up to the officer on duty. I was wearing a crucifix and a fairly respectable sweater. “Excuse me, I found this in our churchyard,” I lied. “Can you please take it?”
There’s nothing like being a middle-aged white lady, I told Steve as we drove back. The cops had gathered around the officer who unwrapped the package. “Holy shit,” said of them. “Excuse me, ma’am.” They passed it around, gingerly, and let me leave after I insisted I didn’t want to make a report or get a receipt. “Can you imagine if we’d been two black teenage guys walking in with that?”
“You just made the high point of my career as a parish administrator,” said Steve. “I never imagined I’d show a cop something that could make him say ‘holy shit.’ “
“Yeah, well,” I said. “I guess this is what you call the Christian life.”