Poor people certainly believed in God. San Francisco might be the least churchgoing city in the nation, but there were still plenty of churches within the run-down blocks around my house—the left-wing Chicano Catholic parish with its gorgeous altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe; the “Temple of the Lyre of the Valley,” an evangelical Salvadoran storefront; the black Pentecostal dive, the Santería chapel, the cruddy white-trash Assembly of God building with its dirty curtains. Poor people said “God bless you” and crossed themselves and stood on street corners singing loud, bad hymns; they bought their little girls frothy first communion dresses; they buried their dead gangbanger brothers with incense and Scripture. (Take this Bread, 66)
At the last stop, the rain paused, and Steve parked. I bounded down another path and dropped off a set of bags next to a boarded-up entry. From a car radio, I could hear music: a gorgeous deep bass line, then voices, loud and full. The sky was deep gray, metallic, and I could see all the way out across the water of the Bay, past the docks, the ships, the mountains, the unrolling horizon. Still wet, and shaking with cold, I lifted up my eyes.
There was an outcropping of rock and a muddy set of stairs leading to a row of cinder-block apartments painted a dingy turquoise. And there was Ruth, a woman I’d become friendly with, waving to me from her bedroom window. I came over eagerly and stood at the open window, and Ruth leaned out and embraced me. I gave her a bag of groceries.
Then she groaned. “Look behind you,” Ruth said, and I half-turned. A skinny middle-aged guy in an old overcoat darted behind one of the barracks.
“That’s my baby,” Ruth said, her voice cracking. “He’s in and out, in and out of jail. He’s mixed up with drugs. I don’t know where he lives, he comes around sometimes and then he steals stuff and he’s gone. You know, when it gets rainy like this, you think about your baby, and you wonder where he’s sleeping….”
“You love him so much,” I said. I was crying.
“I love him so much,” she said. Tears were running down her cheeks. We held hands, while a guy walked by with a radio and a woman across the street yelled to her neighbor.
All of a sudden, the words I sang every day at morning prayer echoed in my head. “Send out your light and your truth, that they may guide us and lead us to your holy hill and to your dwelling. I felt dizzy. This was God’s holy hill: the Hill. And that apartment, with the broken tricycle out front, next to Ruth’s? That was God’s dwelling. God lived right there, in that actual apartment. God lived in Ruth’s hands.
What had I been thinking by praying those words without really paying attention?
They were real. Above me, above the projects and Ruth’s tears, above the wrecked roofs and broken doors and every mistake I’d ever made in my life, was the dark sky, luminous in the east. And in my hands were some Cheerios, some lettuce, and a loaf of bread. (Take This Bread, pp. 195-96)
I’d even seen it on the one day of the year when the pantry got no delivery and was closed, Good Friday. The church was stripped of ornament and hung with black; when it got dark, the congregation would gather to chant a funeral liturgy, laying flowers on an icon of Jesus and leaving in silence, taking a hot cross bun to break their fasts.
Around five in the evening, Paul was helping set up. A homeless guy, kind of sweaty and intense, strolled in, and Paul explained to him that the pantry was closed for Good Friday.
“Don’t you have any food?” he asked.
Paul turned and say the trays of hot cross buns, and handed the man a couple. The man lifted them up.
“Baruch attah Adonai…,” he began. “Baruch attah Adonai eloheinu…. Shit, it’s been a long time since my bar mitzvah,” he said. He was saying the Hebrew blessing for bread: “Blessed are thou, Lord God, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”
Paul stood there in his black cassock trying to remember the Hebrew prayer, as the homeless guy smiled and took a big bite of the first bun. “Baruch attah Adonai elhoeinu melek ha-alom…,” Paul began. He couldn’t remember it either. “Well, bless this bread,” Paul said.
The stranger nodded, took another bun, and walked out. “Okay,” he said. “Thanks. Good Shabbas.” (Take This Bread, 223-24)
Miles, Sara. Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion. New York: Ballantine Books, 2007.