City of God: Faith in the Streets

Sara Miles found both God and community inside the walls of the church. But after becoming a lay minister, then founding and running a food pantry at her Episcopal church, Miles felt an opposite, irresistible call: to take her faith back to the streets, to rub shoulders with creation in all its gritty, diverse glory. "For me," Miles notes in the introduction to her memoir City of God, "paradise is a garden, but heaven is a city."

Miles (Take This Bread) grounds her story in the events of Ash Wednesday 2012, when she and several friends carried ashes into San Francisco's Mission neighborhood, sharing the ancient ritual with friends, neighbors and strangers. Miles admits her discomfort at getting close--sometimes too close--to the area's colorful, often needy population. But with ashes in hand, she finds herself welcomed by everyone from street musicians to hairdressers, all craving a simple, powerful moment of connection.

In a culture obsessed with looking young and avoiding death, Ash Wednesday is an unmistakable reminder of mortality: we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Miles's reflections on the social problems and gentrification of the Mission can feel repetitive, but her writing shines as she narrows her focus to the ashes and the faces around her. The ritual of Ash Wednesday is somber, stirring up grief or fear for some people, but City of God throbs with life, wry humor and even joy. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

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