The Big Idea: Sara Miles
Where is the story of the world being told? It might be in the place you least expect: far away from news cameras and press releases. Sara Miles finds her work in those margins — she is the founder of the St. Gregory’s Food Pantry in San Francisco — but more than that finds the inspiration and ideas which inform her latest book on faith, Jesus Freak. Below, Miles goes into detail about looking where others don’t to see something new… and explains why doing so may be what we’re meant to do.
In the 1980s, I spent a lot of time writing about wars, mostly revolutions and counter-revolutions–– like the ones in El Salvador or the Philippines––and hanging out with soldiers, guerrillas, peasants and death squad members, as well as other journalists. My big idea then was really a technique. If I had to cover what everybody else thought of as the main event––an election, a massacre, a press conference by some crazy general––I’d focus on the stuff that was happening off to the side.
So I’d ignore the official announcements, the formal interviews with important people, and instead I’d chat with the lady mopping up in the back room of the Presidential Palace, or check out which movies were playing next to the Army headquarters, or spend an afternoon drinking Pepsi with guys stuck digging graves on the outskirt of town in the aftermath of a battle. I liked looking at things slant.
As a methodology, this approach kept me interested––even when I came back to the United States and started writing about electoral politics. The official version, prepared by handlers and delivered by hacks, was always just unspeakably dull. The dutiful Q&A was mostly an opportunity to be lied to. But some really funny things happened when nobody was paying attention. (Ask me about the pool party in Silicon Valley where Tipper Gore played drums with an aging Grateful Dead cover band.)
And this approach to writing remained useful when I had a totally unexpected mid-life conversion to Christianity and wrote two books about faith, including my latest, Jesus Freak. In fact, the methodology became an idea.
Because it turns out that God is very much interested in the margins: in the unlikely, ridiculous, and outcast. It turns out that the center of power––military, political or religious––is actually not where most change takes place. And it turns out that Christianity is all about the unexpected.
Think about the prophets with their mad faith the mountains will be flattened and the valleys raised up; think about Mary, with her conviction that the poor will be filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. Consider the impossible idea of an almighty God who chooses, of all possibilities, to be born to a shameful unmarried teenage mother in a barn; who scandalizes politicians, priests and his own family; and who spends his time on Earth hanging out with crooked cops, whores, and the dirtiest, least attractive foreigners around. Imagine a God who winds up as a despised, tortured criminal, condemned by religious authorities and executed by the state.
“Look away” is a big idea, if one embraced more by fools and losers than by the smart and powerful of our world. But my experience is that the more I look away from the way things are supposed to be, the more I get to see.