Review: City of God: Faith in the Streets

March 11th, 2014

The Episcopal writer and lay minister Sara Miles writes remarkable books. A journalist by training, Miles writes of her spiritual life experienced particularly through her ministry with St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco and well beyond the church’s four walls. (Or better said, she writes of ministry well beyond the Church’s four walls!) Miles’ previous books Take This Bread and Jesus Freak tell of her conversion and her growing realization of the connections between the Gospel, social justice, and radical hospitality.

In City of God: Faith in the Streets by Sara Miles (Jericho Books, 2014) readers are invited to accompany Miles along the pilgrim journey she experienced on Ash Wednesday in 2010. That day, Miles was joined by several priests, seminarians and volunteers to serve “Ashes on the go” around the Mission District of San Francisco. She writes at a measured pace, reflecting (reveling?) about a holy day many clergy (alas, myself included) might have settled for declaring the day’s events just yet another “busy” day of church “work.” Frequently, a moment in the book’s present day framework (Ash Wednesday 2010) leads Miles to slip back into the years of her own life, sharing insights into the long relationships she has forged with neighbors, friends, loved ones, colleagues, and congregants.

Along the way, Miles experiences many delays getting the necessary supplies ready (pausing to affirm to the reader of the merits of duct tape) and making her way to the places she needs to be that day, yet she reveals how the interruptions and chance moments of encounter are where the real ministry experiences can be found. In other words, the book serves as a reminder of faith well beyond Ash Wednesday, providing a glimpse of what the other 364 days of the year could be like if just as attentive to the quotidian, the quirks, and the quick fire changes of life.

Much drama unfolds in the lives of the Mission District people encountered on Miles’ Ash Wednesday experiences, yet she keeps glimpsing the holy in the midst of the world. Ambulances are summoned for the ailing and dying, the weary struggle to make it through the grind of daily life, the many worry about their daily bread type needs. Yet Miles draws us to the remarkable smiling bodega owner “as he opens the door to welcome in a straggling, polyglot parade of school kids, nurses, winos, and day laborers” (p. xii). In such a place like the Mission District, Miles sees the grim and the grime around her, yet she declares it the "city of God. Here it is. Heaven, on earth” (p. xiii). She writes, “Another restaurant, a Chinese bakery, a quasi-gentrified bar. A kid on a bike, a kid on a skateboard, a man in a wheelchair. You are dust. Amen. To dust you’ll return. Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.” (p. 179).

Throughout the book, Miles recalls the ancient eschatological hope of “the New Jerusalem” yet not as some sort of “pious Disneyland” too often proclaimed within the Church’s four walls. Rather, in the midst of the Mission District’s racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity, Miles experiences “where heaven and earth are revealed as part of a continuum, and faith not as a performance but an expression of real life” (p. 157). As she encounters persons to offer ashes, it is an encounter with those not likely to attend the official services of the Church, yet for whom the ashes provide a connection to the holiness the ritual can imbue upon a fragile and finite humanity. Miles writes, “As the ashes are imposed and the fact of death spoken aloud, the crossing retraces the other, baptismal marking: the indelible seal of Easter that makes our mortal bodies part of a living one” (p. 145).

In the Baptist tradition(s), Ash Wednesday can be defined as something “other” Christians observe but not for those who follow a sparser calendar of holy days due to a variety of convictional (and sometimes liturgically allergic/phobic) reasons. The book may cause some appreciative reconsideration of these views among the more missional minded who seek ways to connect with their community. Further, Sara Miles’ book challenges our understanding of ritual’s power just as much as some Christians’ societal values. Taking faith to the streets is not necessarily at the top of many worship planners’ ‘to do’ lists, yet this narrative of “Ashes on the go” may cause church leaders and clergy to realize the lost opportunities to make the Gospel abundantly known through ritual and presence, shaking the dust off of the Church’s commission to “go and tell” rather than settle for an evening with those already accustomed to gathering in the church pews.

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