“Sometimes, worshiping in a church building, you can be tempted by the fantasy that God is manageable. On the street, though, anything can happen. The sequence is unpredictable. It’s just too hard to pretend I’m in control.” — Sara Miles, author of City of God
While many Christians will make their way to a church building for Ash Wednesday tomorrow to commemorate the beginning of Lent, a smaller group will be making their way out of the church, and into the streets, to deliver ashes. Sara Miles, Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francsico, will be one of them. Since 2012, Miles and a few friends have been taking the sacred ritual of smudging ashes on foreheads to the streets of her beloved Mission District neighborhood in San Francisco. Her new book, City of God: Faith in the Streets, is the beautiful and profound account of that experience, told in rich and riveting detail. It’s “Loving God, Loving Neighbor” in technicolor, and becomes in the telling, a love song to her God and her city.
Miles, a former journalist and the author of two previous books on her spiritual journey —Take this Bread and Jesus Freak — took some time out from her book tour and ministry work to share what it’s been like to practice her faith outside the walls of the church.
Sara, you have such a compelling conversion story. You were a staunch Atheist before you walked into the sanctuary of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco nearly 15 years ago and converted to Christianity. How would you describe the nature of that conversion experience and your faith journey since then?
That first communion at St. Gregory’s turned my ideas about God upside down: but it wasn’t as if I emerged from the experience with a instantaneous and permanent understanding of Christian doctrine. I spent years groping around, trying to make sense of what had happened to me. I still feel that becoming a Christian is a work in progress, requiring ongoing conversion.
I’ve entered into a living relationship––with God and with other people––and so it keeps changing me.
Your new book, City of God, is the story of your experience of distributing ashes on the streets of San Francisco for Ash Wednesday. What inspired this radical act of taking the liturgy to the streets of your city?
Liturgy in the streets isn’t at all radical in the history of Christianity or other religions. It’s a fairly recent idea that worship only happens at fixed times, indoors, in designated buildings presided over by professionals.
Like a growing number of people around the country ––those involved with unhoused congregations and street churches, those re-imagining public processions, vigils and liturgies, those taking ashes outdoors––I was inspired to find out more about what faith looks like outside the building.
In your book you say: “For me, paradise is a garden, but heaven is a city.” What is it about the city that so reveals the presence of the holy to you? What are we missing when we choose to see/experience God only within the walls of a church building?
I love going to church. You find beautiful things in there. But church buildings are a tiny part of the whole world.
Sometimes, worshiping in a church building, you can be tempted by the fantasy that God is manageable: I politely ask God to do something, God politely responds, and then there’s the collection and the postlude and we all go home. On the street, though, anything can happen. The sequence is unpredictable. It’s just too hard to pretend I’m in control.
What’s heavenly about the city, for me, includes the wild mix of people, the rush of languages, the mess, the hidden places, the shifting sense of scale; lamentation, sweetness, unexpected encounters. Cities feel Pentecostal: on the streets, I get a glimpse of the Holy Spirit, bigger and more powerful than I can imagine, blowing through us all.
Isn’t taking ashes to the streets a sneaky missionary move, bringing your brand of the Divine to the people? What’s your hope in offering ashes outside the church?
It’s kind of hard to be “sneaky” when you’re stomping around in a black cassock swinging a thurible. But in any case, I’m hardly bringing the Divine to the streets: the Divine is already there. Offering ashes outside means seeing and listening to and interacting with others’ faith, being a witness to all the different relationships people have with God.
What does Ash Wednesday mean for you?
It invites us to consider what life looks like if we admit we’re mortal.
What surprised you most about taking Ash Wednesday to the streets? Can you share one or two of your most profound or startling moments?
There was a great moment when I offered ashes to a woman working in an Italian bakery, and she leaned across the counter immediately, still holding this towering iced birthday cake in her hands.
It wrecks me to give ashes to little babies, and tell them they’re going to die. But the amazing thing is how parents say, “Thank you.” They take the ashes as a blessing.
I was in San Francisco recently and heard a lot of talk about the “gentrification” of San Francisco; how the City is pricing out all but the wealthy; and especially, the disdain for the “big white Google busses” that are serving their SF employees who are driving up rent and property values in the City. You live in the Mission District, a part of the City that is know for its fervent activist/social justice history and culture … what’s the conversation like around these issues in your circle of friends and colleagues?
A friend of mine said that he read City of God as “an elegy for the Mission.” I pray that’s not true.
I’ve lived here for over twenty years, and this is a really hard moment. Lots of families are being evicted, losing their homes; lots of small businesses are being driven out; there’s constant talk from politicians and real-estate speculators about “cleaning up” the neighborhood––I guess that means getting rid of unsightly poor people so more fancy restaurants can open. Yet the Mission’s got a long history of grassroots organizing, both secular and faith-based, through which ordinary people have won power before. It’s not a done deal.
Of course I don’t think things are as simple as a struggle between having faith in the Google or faith in the Virgin Mary. But there’s definitely a spiritual dimension to the current struggle in the Mission. The values are different if we see the city as the city of God, or as a for-profit enterprise. Because the city of God isn’t a meritocracy. It’s not entirely quantifiable. And it has a history.
What are your plans for Ash Wednesday and Lent this year? Will you be offering ashes outdoors again, and if so, what are your hopes for the street liturgy this year?
I’m joining people from at least three other churches in the Mission this year to offer ashes outdoors. I hope it won’t rain. And I hope I can be surprised.
Sara Miles is the founder and director of The Food Pantry , and serves as Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Her books include Jesus Freak: Feeding Healing Raising the Dead and Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion. She speaks, preaches and leads workshops around the country, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, and on National Public Radio.