IN HER LATEST book, Sara Miles—author of the spiritual memoirs Take This Bread and Jesus Freak—goes where traditional and liturgical churches don’t regularly go: into the streets to push the boundaries of public worship. City of God chronicles a day in the life in San Francisco’s Mission District, on one Ash Wednesday when Miles and others from St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church offer “Ashes to Go,” a growing national movement within the Episcopal Church to perform the imposition of ashes outside the church walls on the first day of Lent.
Ash Wednesday works on the street because it has a broad ability to speak to people with “different beliefs about God and very different relationships to the church.” Even so, carrying the observance away from the altar has generated critics. Some liturgists have wondered if, without a proper church context, “the ashes become a meaningless affirmation of our earthly life,” or whether regular folks on the street can really appreciate the profundity of the human condition and mortality without the church to explain it to them. Trusting that people on the street will “get it,” Miles embarked on a day of crossing the traditional borders of worship space to smudge foreheads in McDonald’s, taquerias, hair salons, and botanicas.
Miles finds that traditional observance of liturgies such as Ash Wednesday helps reclaim the public language of sin and repentance in a progressive way. This kind of re-evaluation of sin in common life led her to realize how she’s also fallen short of the call to solidarity and deep communion with the city. “I aspired to be the kind of neighbor who knew everyone,” she writes, “I yearned to be in real relationship.” But her admittedly self-satisfied sense of fellowship didn’t match up to her interactions. She hadn’t even bothered to learn the last name of a young Latino activist on her block and confesses, “I prayed for my neighbors, but not so much with them, and it made me uncomfortable.”