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Taking the ash outside

22 August 2014

Sara Miles takes Ash Wednesday on to the streets of San Francisco


EARLY in 2010, Bertie and I arranged to meet in the plaza, checking it out and making notes on how to do our first Ash Wednesday street liturgy there. Bertie is a young Anglo-Catholic priest who used to be a DJ and punk drummer. In his formal black clericals, he looked like a choirboy dressed up as Johnny Cash.

We studied the scene as commuters rose out of the depths of the station; waves of middle-school kids swept along the sidewalk, and panhandlers wove in and out of the crowd.

We came up with an outline for a service. I was concerned with the space, and how we'd use it; I didn't want to just take a standard indoor liturgy and transport it outside.

Bertie, ever the traditionalist, wanted to open with the blessing of ashes from the Book of Common Prayer. But ever the cool mission-district party promoter, too, he thought we could grab people's attention by having a black-robed procession appear on the plaza, while three Brazilian drummers he knew pounded out an opening anthem.

"We could use copal for incense, and cense the four corners of the plaza at the beginning of the service," I suggested. Copal, the yellowish resin used by Aztecs to bless the four directions of the world, still fills Mexican Roman Catholic churches with the smell of prayers more ancient than Jesus; it marks the opening of a sacred liturgy in both traditions.

AND so, on Ash Wednesday 2010, we did our first offering of ashes in the street. About a dozen people volunteered to take part. We began singing a repetitive chant, and took off down 24th Street. There were a couple of priests participating, and a few seminarians, but even the professionals weren't necessarily used to stomping through city streets in long black robes, and our group moved a little awkwardly.

The burly Brazilian drummers were going wild. I fished a few sticky crumbs of copal out of my pocket and dropped them on the coals in my thurible, and then our whole group walked deliberately around the corners of the busy plaza, censing east and west, north and south, with clouds of smoke.

We returned to the card table which was our makeshift altar; the drummers pounded out a last barrage, then stopped. My ears rang with the sudden absence of percussion. "O God," Bertie began, chanting in a serious, clear voice, and looking up toward heaven, "you made us from the dust of the earth. Grant that these ashes may be a sign of our mortality and penitence. . . "

He was holding a baby-food jar full of ashes in both hands, raising it high in front of him. Now bystanders were edging nearer to see what we were doing.

I knelt. I bent over and pressed my forehead to the sidewalk - the whole rush of this neighbourhood, its crazy beauty and apparent hopelessness, flooding my heart. I'd walked through the plaza the day that two teenagers were shot. I'd seen someone OD in the subway entrance. I'd come here with my lover and my five-year-old daughter; I'd eaten tacos, chatted with beggars, and laughed with friends on this holy ground. "Lord," I whispered, "have mercy."

NOW it was 2012, and we were getting ready for another Ash Wednesday on the same streets. I looked at two volunters, Kelsey and Vera, smiling, and nodded. "Good to go?" I asked them.

Before we even got out of the plaza, we came across a leathery woman in a blue windbreaker slumped against the wall, licking a vanilla ice-cream cone with the dreamy inattentiveness of a regular heroin-user, as if she might, at any moment, forget to swallow. But when we crossed into her field of vision, she waved the cone, beckoning us over, and turned up her face for the ashes. People flowed past like the river in Psalm 46 which "delights the city of God".

A Middle Eastern man scooped up his toddler and gave the boy a noisy kiss, and another line from a psalm popped into my mind: "Blessed be God, who has shown me the wonders of his love in a besieged city."

"He'd like some ashes, please," the man said, lifting the boy high as he squirmed and giggled. "Hold still. It's not going to hurt." I crossed the boy's forehead, and then the father's.

AT THE Mission Cultural Center, a couple of Chicano hipsters wearing trendy eyeglasses and sneakers waved us inside; at the florist next door, an exhausted-looking grandmother smiled, but remained seated among buckets of roses, stripping off the leaves as she received the ashes.

I didn't even glance into the Evangelical bookstore. "No thank you," an upright woman there had told me icily, the previous year. "We're Christians."

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.

"I'm glad to be here," Vera said suddenly. "Me, too," Kelsey said. "I need to be with people who aren't like me," she said. "I just want - I don't know. I want to feel connected to them in another way, let my little chatting, judging, evaluating mind quiet down and just be with other human beings."

That's exactly what people in the Mission had done for me. And in each moment of encounter - brief, intense, unpredictable - God's presence flared out, as if my hand and a stranger's face became, together, the tent of meeting.

This is an edited extract from City of God: Faith in the streets by Sara Miles, published by Canterbury Press at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69 - Use code CT508 ).

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