Atheist-turned-priest Sara Miles rubs ashes on the forehead of a man sitting on a San Francisco street. - Photo courtesy of Sara Miles

Atheist-turned-believer Sara Miles rubs ashes on the forehead of a man sitting on a San Francisco street. – Photo courtesy of Sara Miles

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.

Cover image courtesy of Hachette Book Group

Cover image courtesy of Hachette Book Group

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.

Atheist-turned-priest Sara Miles rubs ashes on the forehead of a San Francisco store clerk. - Image courtesy of Sara Miles.

Atheist-turned-believer Sara Miles rubs ashes on the forehead of a San Francisco store clerk. – Image courtesy of Sara Miles.

RNS: The traditional church practice of applying ashes seems strange and even mysterious to those who aren’t Christians. What is the benefit? 

SM: Ash Wednesday should be the least appealing of Christian holidays—no gifts, no festive carols, no special meals. Nobody gets a greeting card for Ash Wednesday: all you get is someone smearing dirt on your forehead and telling you that you’re going to die. And yet, even in a strongly secular city like San Francisco, hundreds and hundreds of people, not all of them Christians, come up––even chase me down the sidewalk––to get those ashes. I think the power of the ritual is that it’s an opportunity to finally tell the truth in public. It’s a relief to admit that,  like everyone else, you’re not in charge. Despite the culture’s insistence that more things or bling, money or advertising will keep us alive, the plain truth is that we’re all just mortal…and we’re connected to one another.

RNS: What will the rest of Lent, these next forty days leading up to Easter, look like for you?

I hope it will look like repentance, by which I don’t mean feeling guilty, or acting super-pious. Repentance means turning away from all the stuff that binds me—laziness, busy-ness, nostalgia, self-loathing, fear––and turning toward God, and toward other people, with desire. Lent is a chance for me to fail at that, and to get up and do it again.

RNS: I’ve read you’re a former atheist. What convinced you to give Jesus a chance?

SM: I didn’t grow up going to church, and I certainly didn’t have any interest in becoming a Christian—or, as I saw it, a religious nut. I wasn’t a “seeker,” and I was never “convinced” by doctrine, or any kind of intellectual argument. But Jesus happened to me, when I was 46 and, unplanned, took my first communion. I ate a little piece of bread and had a sip of some rather sticky wine, and realized two things. One was that this bread was absolutely real––flour, water, salt, yeast.  And the other was that Jesus, whom I didn’t believe in, was alive and in my mouth.

I think my Christian faith continues to be very physical, centered on experiences of God incarnate in flesh and blood.

9 Comments

  1. Refreshing story of someone who came to faith as opposed to all those articles (and blogs) of those who have walked away from it. Taking faith to the streets – awesome!

  2. Every person is born an atheist. Every religious person is an atheist turned religious.

    Good thing she is smearing ashes on people. It will cure cancer, amputees will grow new limbs. If she goes to the graveyard and digs up bodies and smears ashes on them they will come back to life. Gosh how silly.

    • We are not born atheist. Did you pop out thinking “There is no God.” I don’t think the bible claims this either. About your second paragraph, I think it’s something to dig into. Also, if she’s not hurting people but making them happy that’s what matters.

    • Even sillier is the notion that Jesus was alive (and squirming?) in her mouth. This fantastic notion that bread and wine turn into flesh and blood is not only repellent to any decent person; it’s also deeply troubling that any rational person could hold onto such a repugnant idea. How one goes from atheist to believing in such nonsense makes me wonder what her conversion was all about. And Episcopalian? That’s a church where anyone can believe anything, including that the bread and wine are simply that, just bread and wine.

      • I don’t get the impression she was ever an atheist in any real sense.

        You see that a lot. People who claim to be former atheists, when in reality they were either just anti-religious, or just previously uninvolved with religion (as Ms. Miles).

        There is nothing which suggests Ms. Miles ever took a rational approach to life typified by those choosing to become atheist. There is no conversion from unbelief to belief here. Just disinterest to interest. The “former atheist” tag is really more for sensationalism than accuracy.

    • An article entitled Born Believers by Justin Barrett in the New Scientist, dated March 17, 2012, proposed that, not only are we not born atheists, we are actually born with a propensity for believing in God. It has nothing to do with indoctrination. It’s part and parcel of us.

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