Faith on the streets

An interactive exercise for Café readers: Sara Miles' new book, City of God, looks at faith on the streets. As Ash Wednesday approaches please share your own experiences with liturgy in public places.

by Sara Miles

…This was my neighborhood. And it was God’s. How had I managed to not see God for so long, when he’d been sending out signals for twenty years as unsubtly as a popsicle vendor ringing the bells on his pushcart and screeching paleeeeetas every time I ventured outdoors?

I thought about the plaza at 24th and Mission, where we were going to hold our Ash Wednesday service. The plaza was smack in the center of the Mission and held a special attraction for the most hardcore Christian zealots. I’d more or less ignored them for over a decade. Then after my own unexpected conversion to the faith I listened with new ears, and found myself mortified by the ferocity of their message: Repent… sinner… Zion…everlasting fire...

On the southeast corner of the plaza, a MacDonalds daubed with graffiti sold all-American industrial “tacos” to Mexican families. ...

There was a gaggle of old Nicaraguan men to the northwest, parked on milk crates on the sidewalk, arguing pointlessly about exile politics. A more or less Catholic religious-goods store, its windows clogged with rosaries and medallions and ugly plaster statues of Guadalupe and St. Joseph, was behind them. Open only intermittently, its dingy back counter held candles and powders and a business-like priestess who promised luck, money, revenge, love, protection from the evil eye. ....

Oblivious, a few Jehovah’s Witnesses positioned themselves across from the musicians: plain middle-aged women in glasses and long skirts, silently holding up copies of the Spanish-language Watchtower that nobody ever took. ...

The really serious evangelicals were clustered on the northeast side of the plaza, next to the guys hustling bus transfers. Repent, burn, alleluia, amen, repent. And this was where we were headed: ground zero for prophecies shouted out through crappy little amps, accompanied by tambourines and clapping and the occasional psychotic preacher howling about hell so relentlessly that the transit cops would finally have to tell him to go home.

“Oh my God, Sara,” Martha had groaned, that first year I told her where I was planning to be on Ash Wednesday. “Are you really going over to the plaza in, like, full church drag?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Well, you know, just a few of us, just a little service. Sort of. Ashes. I mean, look, what can I say, I’ve gone over the edge.”

I tried to sound nonchalant, but ever since the idea of celebrating Ash Wednesday in the street had seized me, the line between respectable Episcopal churchgoer and lunatic evangelist had been rapidly eroding. I hadn’t told Martha we were planning to kneel on the sidewalk and pray.

Because there was no line, really. There was no boundary but the very thin layers of skin between my thumb and a stranger’s forehead, made slippery with the shared truth of our mortality. And those ashes, like all blessings, were going to dirty us both up, unleashing a power that flowed back and forth, creating space for the good news to spring up new between us.

Those of us in cassocks on Ash Wednesday, those shouting repentance at rush hour through their amps, were hardly “bringing church to the streets.” If the Mission meant anything, it was about how church––not the buildings, not the tax-exempt legal entities, but the complex, contradictory, earthy, passionate and mutually indwelling body of Christ––was already living there. ....

Read more here and add your experiences in the comments.

Comments (2)

I have read the two other Sara Miles books, and I found Jesus Freak particularly interesting. She has some challenging thoughts on the Eucharist for some of us, but they are conversations that need to take place for us to continually wrestle with what communion means to us and what we are called to do at table by God.

She is open and honest about her journey to church membership, which provides a perspective we need desperately as we approach an increasingly secular age. Can't wait to read this book, too.

Why just Ash Wednesday in the street--a strange choice? Why not every holiday, and every Sunday--process through the streets in fancy dress, singing and swinging the incense?

One big reason Christianity is going down is because folk religion has died out--all the public customs, the street celebrations that were a feature of medieval life and now still figure in some Catholic countries. We have to revive that.That's what makes religion attractive.

In the US people don't know that religion is like this. Their paradigm is Evangelicalism, which is religion as its worst--all talk and no ceremony or celebration, no fancy dress, or fancy buildings or rituals. You want to evangelize? Grow the church? Get out on the streets and show the general public the church's stuff.

Why aren't you doing it?

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