Take This Bread

It was a Friday afternoon, early in June. Fridays at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, located in the heart of the Mission district of San Francisco, are when the food pantry is in operation. A charismatic and passionate woman named Sara Miles, a self-proclaimed atheist who wandered into St. Gregory’s one day and found a home, runs the pantry from the altar of the church. I had flown to San Francisco to work with Sara, attracted by the notion of giving away food from the same place where we receive it.

The pantry is run solely by volunteers, many of whom were once visitors to the pantry themselves. They arrive early in the morning and unload the crates of food onto flattened cardboard boxes. The end result is an array of colors and smells, as fruits, vegetables, breads, pastas, beans, cereals, and dry goods are heaped into piles encircling the altar.

From noon to 4:00 on Friday, every Friday, these groceries are then subsequently given away. No questions asked; no restrictions placed; no forms required. Anyone and everyone is welcome, whether first time visitors or monthly regulars. No one is denied.

I was assigned to a job by the door, and from this post I was able to observe the visitors coming in and out of the pantry. There were diverse nationalities: Hispanic, Russian, African-American, Chinese. Women who looked as if they called the streets home; children too young to be in such need; a man dressed to the nines in an expensive three-piece suit: a regular customer.

I watched body expressions, listened to comments. One old Chinese immigrant raced in with her grocery sack open and ready, and exclaimed with delight at the potatoes. “Look at those potatoes! So good! So good!” she repeated, over and over. Another old woman, when handed an ice cream pop, a special treat that week, didn’t have to exclaim or shout; the tears streaming down her face said enough.

The food pantry at St. Gregory’s is one of many such free grocery pantries across San Francisco. In an interview, the assistant director of the San Francisco food bank was asked about the aim of such programs. She painted a vivid image by stating, “Donors love pictures of cute little kids having snacks at school. And they support meal programs for seniors. But nobody’s lining up to say, ‘Gee, I want to put food in the cupboard for really poor black mothers who use drugs; I want to buy groceries for everyone living in the projects.’ Very few donors trust poor people enough to just give away food without conditions.”

I was humbled by Sara’s ability to do this, this giving away of food with no conditions. She held the capacity of being able to treat every visitor with dignity and respect, no matter what their story or circumstance. Many of the guests confided in her, sharing tales of their past, the tumultuous events that led them to St. Gregory’s. Instead of shying away she embraced them, their needs outweighing what they had done in her eyes. To the rest of St. Gregory’s congregation the visitors to the pantry had been invisible; Sara gave them a name, a face, and a voice.

excerpted from Breaking Bread: A Homily by Meggan Lloyd.  The book to which she refers is a spiritual memoir of a similar name:  “Take This Bread” by Sara Miles.take_this_bread

Prayer for Thanksgiving 2008

Abundant Lord, as we pray “give us this day our daily bread,” teach us the definition, the responsibility, and the unconditional scope of “us.”  Amen.

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