Street Evangelism and Ashes

When I took church to the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District, I found God was already there.

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Offering ashes at a bakery. Ash Wednesday 2010 in San Francisco. Photo by Claire Blackstock.

“Oh, my God, Sara,” my wife groaned the first time I mentioned where I was planning to be on Ash Wednesday. “Are you really going out in public in, like, full church drag?”

As difficult as it had sometimes been for my family when I became a Christian and began attending services on Sundays, this was a whole new step. Now I was proposing to do church outdoors, among random bystanders, smack in the middle of the crowded streets of our neighborhood — the rapidly gentrifying Mission District of San Francisco.

“Yeah,” I said. “Well, you know, just a few of us, we’re just holding a little service. Sort of. Ashes. I mean — look, what can I say? I’ve gone over the edge.”

I tried to sound casual, but I could tell the line between respectable churchgoer and lunatic evangelist was rapidly eroding. And I hadn’t even mentioned we were planning to kneel down on the sidewalk, in black cassocks, and pray.

To plan an Ash Wednesday service in the streets, I had corralled Bertie Pearson, a young Episcopal priest who’d been a Mission District DJ, musician and party promoter before getting ordained. A very orthodox theologian, Bertie has pink cheeks and swept-back black hair; in his formal clericals he looks like a choirboy dressed up as Johnny Cash.

I told Bertie I wanted to offer ashes on a busy corner by the subway plaza. He was appalled. “I mean, I live less than half a block away from that plaza,” Bertie said, “and everyday I have to walk past evangelical preachers screaming through their amps: ‘The blood of Jesus is real! You must repent! Jesus loves you!’ All of which I agree with, you know, but. . .”

“I know,” I said.

“I detest the way they give the message,” Bertie said fiercely. “It’s really challenging to think about being out in the heart of my community, trying to reclaim the public language of sin and repentance from the fundamentalists. So much of my life has been distinguishing myself from them.”

He paused, and continued in a gentler voice: “They must sometimes feel as awkward as we do.”

“I wonder,” I said. “I feel pretty awkward.”

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Offering ashes by the bus stop. Ash Wednesday 2010 in San Francisco. Photo by Claire Blackstock.

You might ask: why work so hard to hold a church service outdoors, especially one that’s potentially humiliating? Is it just a break in routine for bored liturgists, a flirtation with the exotic? Are we engaging in a kind of extreme religious sport? Following a trendy fad? Making a statement to show how innovative and daring we can be?

Or worse, do we imagine we are, in a phrase that always makes me deeply suspicious, “bringing church to the people?”

What I hate about that expression is the way it assumes people on the streets — sex workers, punk rockers, commuters, immigrants, young parents — don’t already have their own revelations and faith. They just need to get with the program and come to know God our way: the right way. Liberal and conservative Christians alike might translate a bit, dress Jesus up with contemporary images or what we imagine to be culturally appropriate music, but mostly we think we know the answers. God, the real God, is already revealed inside my own church building, or inside my denomination. And if I’m generous enough, I can go offer the good news to unfortunates who are surely waiting for it on street corners.

To be sure, the brutal, crusading history of Christianity presents would-be evangelists with a rather low bar: just don’t convert others by violence, bullying, blaming, lying or selling. But the real challenge of Christian evangelism, for me, turns out to be more subtle: how to pay attention to what God is already doing without our help.

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Awkward Christians like Bertie and me heading outdoors in cassocks on Ash Wednesday — or fundamentalist zealots hollering “Repent!” through their amps — are hardly “bringing church to the streets.” If any of us are honest, we’re just witnessing the ways that Church — not the buildings or tax-exempt legal entities, but the complex, contradictory body of Christ — is already there.

God’s people are right out there in the streets and fast food joints and marketplaces of every city encountering Jesus, Mary, saints, demons, angels, themselves, and one another — sometimes a lot more intensely than is comfortable. They’re praying, sinning, repenting, blessing, being baptized into the muddy river of life. They’re not waiting for the correct theology to be shoved into their hand via a damp pamphlet; they’re constantly developing their own theologies, in profusion. And they’re definitely not waiting for missionaries of any stripe to venture outdoors and save them. God is saving them — and, God willing, will save me, too, from my own assumptions.

As the Orthodox theologian Demetrios Constanteios points out: “It is the Spirit which moves where it wills, whose presence and operation is everywhere and all-encompassing. . . . The Spirit of God may not be where one would like to see it, and it may be where one refuses to see it. Thus it is impossible to define the boundaries of God’s people.”

What I discover on Ash Wednesday by going out to the streets is that there is no boundary, really. There’s just the tiny space between my thumb and a stranger’s forehead, made slippery with the ashes that signify our shared mortality. And there I find blessing: I am evangelized.

Sara Miles
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  • Sam Stephenson

    Love this piece! I love the ideas here: reclaiming the public language of sin and repentance; the mystery God, who is saving the world; people developing theologies, in profusion. Great post to begin lent.

  • Rational Conclusions

    Lent, prayers and repentance are futile !!! “Do No Harm” replaces them all.