When Church Happens Out There, Instead of In Here

What would happen if we took to the streets of West Hartford Center next Ash Wednesday, asking anyone whose path we crossed if they would like ashes on their forehead? Would people laugh at us, or perhaps purposefully avoid us while casting anxious looks over their shoulder? Or might we find that people welcome this odd, ancient ritual? Might we discover wisdom and connections that enrich both us and those we meet?

9781455547319I recently reviewed Sara Miles's new book, City of God: Faith in the Streets, for the Englewood Review of Books. (Miles also wrote Take This Bread, which was our Lenten book a few years ago at St. James's.) City of God is an engaging story of one Ash Wednesday when Miles and others from her Episcopal church took ashes to the streets of San Francisco's Mission neighborhood, asking those they met, "Would you like some ashes?" Miles reflects on how people reacted, the meaning of Ash Wednesday, and what the church can both offer to and receive from its neighbors. Her reflections are full of wisdom for all 21st-century Christians, even those abiding in neighborhoods far different from the Mission.

For example, Miles challenges the notion that Christians are primarily in the business of ministering to our communities. Instead, she offers a vision of mutual giving and learning, in which Christians go into our neighborhoods not merely to give but also to listen and receive. Miles asserts that her city streets are already home to sacred wisdom, writing that,

A lot of Christians, liberals as well as conservatives, still easily assume that sex workers, punk rockers or young parents strolling along 24th Street don’t have their own revelations and theologies: they just need to get with the program and come to know God the right way—ours…But Christians…are hardly “bringing Church to the streets.” We’re simply witnessing to the reality that Church—not the buildings or tax-exempt legal entities, but the complex, contradictory body of Christ—is already there. “The people” are God’s people.

City of God is a call to Christians to recognize how God is already sanctifying every aspect of human life—including the gritty, loud rhythms of a mixed-income, mixed-ethnicity urban neighborhood like the Mission.

Miles also gets right to the heart of Ash Wednesday—remembering that we are dust. She discovers holy connections with other people—people who don’t go to church, people very unlike her—in her beloved city. But the connection she discovers is one we can find with anyone, no matter where we live, because the connection is mortality. The acts of smearing ash and offering one’s forehead to be smeared reveal the radical possibilities of an incarnational faith—a faith that means something for we who bear all of the limits and possibilities, pains and pleasures of life in a human body, lived in proximity to other human bodies.

Miles writes,

…though incarnation is at the center of Christian faith, it can be scary to experience it…It feels way too dangerous to mix up the grungy facts of our bodies—blood, sex, breath, illness, dirt, death—with the Spirit, which most of us would prefer to imagine as elevated and immaterial. Bodies aren’t stable; they’re vulnerable. And when random bodies slam into each other unplanned, the way they do in the street of a mestizo [mixed heritage] city, anything can happen. Sometimes it can feel safer to worship indoors, in a temple of stone, where the company is more predictable. Where the fire will seem smaller and the overshadowing cloud less dark and the holy ground more neatly fenced in. But a spiritual life is a physical life, shared with other people…Church is small. But the good news is that any temple made by human hands must always be too small to hold God.

As I read City of God, I kept thinking of something Bob said on our recent Vestry retreat. He reminded us that, for most of Christian history, churches could be assured that, as long as they kept the lights and heat on, and opened the doors every Sunday morning, people—plenty of people—would come in those doors. But that's no longer true. So we have to think about how to be church when we can no longer assume that people will come to us. As Miles articulates so well in City of God, drawing people into church with better programs or music or sermons isn’t the solution. Rather, going out into the world, meeting people where they live and work and celebrate and suffer, is the solution—or a piece of it, anyway. Miles quotes her church’s rector, Paul: “Ash Wednesday is really good for the church…Not just for individuals. The other three hundred sixty-four days of the year, we think we’re fine. We think we’re not going to die, if we just tweak our music or our coffee hour or the associate rector’s new program. On Ash Wednesday, we have to realize, we have to completely realize, that we are completely out of control.”

Reading City of God, I started imagining how the residents of West Hartford, so in control with our designer yoga togs, organic markets, and hybrid SUVs, would react to a stranger offering a thumb coated with ash. What “revelations and theologies” might we discover? How might our engagement with those who spend their Sundays with cappuccino and the New York Times change the purpose and focus of our Sunday mornings? No longer assured that people will come to us if we fling open the sanctuary doors, what new possibilities await us if we become willing to step outside those doors? How can we step outside our church doors not at the head of a triumphant procession bringing some ministry initiative to our neighbors, but as God’s beloved people dwelling in our limited, mortal bodies and minds, aching for connection with other beloved people? How can we, as Miles puts it, “be with other people and let their relationships with God evangelize us”?