Sara Miles has an unconventional conversion story. She was working as a journalist for Mother Jones in San Francisco when she wandered into a church in the Potrero Hill neighborhood. “I didn’t know any Christians at the time, so it wasn’t like I knew exactly what to expect,” she said. Her parents were both the children of missionaries, and they had both “had it with church” by the time they were adults. Sara was as unlikely as anyone to walk into St. Gregory’s that day, but something drew her in, and it has stayed with her ever since.
Miles recently joined us for one of our Conversations for the Common Good, a series that the Newbigin House of Studies hosts each year. Since her conversion, Miles has become the Director of Ministry at St. Gregory’s and has written several books exploring the spiritual life. She has also worked with others at St. Gregory’s to open a food pantry, which now serves up to 600 families each week. “Feeding other people is the most basic thing,” she said. “I really do think that especially in those moments where we’re eating with the wrong people, we’re eating with the inappropriate people, with strangers, that eating together has the power to create communion of a sort.”
The unexpected goodness of God is a vein that runs throughout Miles’s writing and life experience. “Grace doesn’t come when we think it should come,” she said. “Grace pours out at the most inappropriate moments on the most inappropriate people, which is why, when I started the food pantry, it really was modeled on that experience [of grace] I’d had.” It wasn’t about starting another social program or doing another good deed, but a recognition of the fact that, as Miles had been hungry for something on the day she walked into St. Gregory’s, the people who needed food were hungry for something, too. And out of that hunger, many of them have become volunteers at the food pantry as well. “It turned out what they were really hungry for was to give. Not just to be objects of charity, but to be people who were changing, and who had something to give.”
The standout feature of St. Gregory’s is its enormous rotunda with an icon of dozens of dancing saints going around the room. That was the first thing Miles noticed when she walked into St. Gregory’s. “People were sitting there, and there was some silence and some singing. I’m sure there was a sermon, but I didn’t pay any attention to it.” It was the experience of being in the room that moved Miles. “I sat there taking it in and we walked, singing, up to the table. And everybody stood around the table in a mob and started singing these prayers, and there was bread and wine.” A woman offered communion to Miles, saying that as Jesus welcomes everyone to his table, so is everyone welcomed to this table.
“I was totally short-circuited, so I just started to cry and I got out of there as quickly as I could because I was afraid a Christian might try to talk to me,” Miles said. She wasn’t quite ready for that conversation, but there was something about it that remained with her and moved her. “It was an understanding that this thing is real…and it hasn’t left me.” She was given a job–to hand out communion–and, grateful for a role, she kept coming back. The feeling of giving communion–“to put it in people’s hands”–blew Sara away and gave her a sense of belonging, enough so that she decided to be baptized.
Her spiritual experience spilled over into her practical life, and the food pantry at St. Gregory’s has become a ministry and a blessing to hundreds of people in the Bay Area. “God thinks that food is for life,” Miles said. “God doesn’t think food is for purity or for demonstrating scarcity or for proving something about yourself. God thinks it’s for everybody. Jesus welcomes everybody. And when you eat with strangers, you’re able to taste God.”