Through the Front Door

In recent news, New York City council members revealed that a new Manhattan high-rise, in which 20% of the units will be reserved for subsidized housing, will have a separate entrance for those units. In the basest terms, low-income residents will be entering through the “back door,” reminiscent of that reserved for servants in earlier centuries.

This practice – both in the pre-Civil Rights Era and, it would seem, lingering today – is intended to ensure that a certain “type” of person (rich, White) does not come into contact with another “type” of person (poor, non-White). In her book Take This Bread, Sara Miles addresses the pervasiveness of this separate-door mentality in modern Christianity, and challenges it in her local community.

Miles comes to Christianity through the universalities of hunger and food. As a young restaurant sous chef, she would slip the excess to homeless men who stopped by the kitchen door at the end of the night. As a journalist covering coups and military dictatorships in Central and South America, food became a currency in exchange for conversation. Returning to America and settling in a Latino neighborhood in San Francisco, Miles feels displaced; wealthier and Whiter than her neighbors, she struggles for a sense of connection and community. So, when she wanders through the doors of St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, she is moved by the sacrament of communion, the practice of welcoming all to the table through the sharing of bread and wine.

The weekly communion service at St. Gregory’s proclaims that everyone is welcome to the table, that all are equal, and that there is no distinguishing between the worthy and the unworthy. In her nascent Christianity, Miles believes this guilelessly, absorbing Jesus’s many miracles of providing food and drink to those around him and his explicit instructions to “feed my sheep” as proof that literally feeding others is a central tenet of Christianity. Therefore, when the opportunity arises to open a food pantry at St. Gregory’s, she embraces it as a way to extend communion, truly, to all people. What Miles does not realize is that in presenting the idea of the pantry to her congregation, she will be confronted with the institutional classism in the modern church.

“There was nothing quite as condescending as the phrase ‘helping the less fortunate’ rolling off the tongue of a white professional, as if poverty were a matter of luck instead of the result of a political system,” notes Miles (107). To her, starting the food pantry was something that was both “radically necessary” and in line with her faith. She is surprised to find, however, that many of the St. George parishioners do not share her vision.

The concerns of St. George’s parishioners are not surprising: they worry about the volatility of such a frequent and visceral contact with the poor. They fret about the visibility of “hundreds of poor, crazy, homeless, potentially dangerous street people” lining up outside the front door of their church. They worry about how their “nice neighbors” will “react to crowds of hungry strangers from the projects on St. Gregory’s steps.” They envision damage done to their church, their altar, their icons and art (114-115). They ask why the pantry can’t happen somewhere else, and if it must happen here, then maybe the poor can just, well, come through the back door?

The polarization of St. Gregory’s over the prospect of the food pantry reflects that of the Church at large. Despite preaching diversity and inclusion, the modern Christian church is becoming more fragmented along racial, political and class lines. When Miles joined St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, her vision that “most Christians spoke the same language” was shattered (89). Instead, what she found was a religion in crisis between those who “sought to keep religion ‘pure’” and those who “welcomed outcasts” (88). While she joined her particular church because of its insistence on radical inclusion, she discovered that practicing such inclusion is much more difficult than believing in its inherent rightness.

Yet Miles is not deterred. If the church is to truly embody the principles of inclusion, they must learn to do as Jesus did, and wash away the barriers of class, race and language, the pungency of poverty. They must learn that the food pantry has always “embodied the glorious, disturbing reality at the very center of our church: Jesus’s Table, where all are welcomed without exception” (248) – and welcomed equally, through the main doors, to the very altar at which the congregation gathers for their own consumption of bread.

Through this book, Miles demonstrates that perseverance and a dedication to the biblical injunction to feed others can transform a church and a community. As the pantry grows, parishioners and pantry-goers alike are drawn into her larger vision of a world in which all people, regardless of income or religion, are treated with dignity and respect. Take This Bread is a powerful testimony of the personal and religious transformations that can occur when everyone is welcomed through the same door and to the same table.

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Caitlin has an MA in English from Georgetown University and works in Human Resources as the global inclusion program coordinator at a consulting firm in Chicago. She is also active on the Advocacy Council of Women Employed and a mentor with Companies that Care – AIM High. Caitlin blogs about her passion for equality and the intersection of faith, religion and politics at Diversityjane.wordpress.com and on Twitter @DiversityJane.