Athiest-Turned-Believer's Radical Ash Wednesday Practice


Sara Miles is a former-atheist-turned-believer and author of the critically-acclaimed "Take This Bread" and her newest book, "City of God: Faith in the Streets." She is Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Sara has what some might consider a radical Ash Wednesday practice. Here, we talk about how she spends this holy holiday and why Ash Wednesday matters. RNS: On Ash Wednesdays, you do something radical. Tell us about that.

SM: Beginning in 2010, I’ve spent a good part of each Ash Wednesday on the streets of my neighborhood––at bus stops, in back alleys, fast-food joints and taquerias--offering ashes to anyone who wants them.

RNS: Have any surprise transformations taken place?  

SM: I loved going in to a beauty shop where the hairdresser gently lifted up his customer’s big teased bangs as she sat getting highlights, so that I could mark her forehead. The transforming realization is that ashes aren’t something “imposed” by one person on another: pressing my thumb on a stranger’s forehead blesses and changes us both. In every brief, intense, unpredictable moment of encounter on the street, it’s as if time just stops, and God’s presence flares out between us.

RNS: What I love about this story is that you take what is traditionally a practice for church people and use it as a springboard to connect with those outside.  Is it important to get outside of our church walls & connect with those who might never enter?

SM: It’s strange that doing Ash Wednesday on the streets is seen as a new or exotic practice. In fact, worship outside of church is the unexceptional historical norm for Christianity­­. God has never been picky about showing up anywhere: a burning bush, the womb of a humiliated teenage girl, a dirty feed trough, a party or prison. God lives in relationship with all kinds of people––the weak, the querulous, the not-so-bright––and is revealed in the relationships we have with our neighbors and with strangers.  Why wouldn’t we want to look everywhere we possibly can to see more of what God is doing?  God has left the building.