City of God: Excerpts

…This was my neighborhood. And it was God’s. How had I managed to not see God for so long, when he’d been sending out signals for twenty years as unsubtly as a popsicle vendor ringing the bells on his pushcart and screeching paleeeeetas every time I ventured outdoors?

I thought about the plaza at 24th and Mission, where we were going to hold our Ash Wednesday service. The plaza was smack in the center of the Mission and held a special attraction for the most hardcore Christian zealots. I’d more or less ignored them for over a decade. Then after my own unexpected conversion to the faith I listened with new ears, and found myself mortified by the ferocity of their message: Repent… sinner… Zion…everlasting fire..

On the southeast corner of the plaza, a MacDonalds daubed with graffiti sold all-American industrial “tacos” to Mexican families. Underage Honduran dope dealers, pimply and pale, flanked the restaurant’s doors, watching for business and taking orders on their cheap cell phones. Like the frightened Mixtec men peddling boxes of pesticide-laden oranges on nearby side streets, a lot of the boys were rumored to be indentured servants, working off debts to the gangs who’d brought them across the border.

There was a gaggle of old Nicaraguan men to the northwest, parked on milk crates on the sidewalk, arguing pointlessly about exile politics. A more or less Catholic religious-goods store, its windows clogged with rosaries and medallions and ugly plaster statues of Guadalupe and St. Joseph, was behind them. Open only intermittently, its dingy back counter held candles and powders and a business-like priestess who promised luck, money, revenge, love, protection from the evil eye.

The southwest side near the bus stop was claimed by a band of aging, remarkably sexy salseros who used it as their performance space and social club on weekends, enticing even a tough young butch girl with baggy pants to pause for a minute when the singer, a stocky Puerto Rican guy, let his tenor slide over the stutter of claves in “Cuando Te Vea.” The congero, Julio, would hunch over his drums impassively, but I’d seen him lift his head and call out praise to the orixas when Yoruba chants broke from deep inside the familiar rhythms, and ancient spirits seemed to hover over the sidewalk.

Oblivious, a few Jehovah’s Witnesses positioned themselves across from the musicians: plain middle-aged women in glasses and long skirts, silently holding up copies of the Spanish-language Watchtower that nobody ever took. Nearby, where the subway escalator poured out commuters, food vendors parked their carts: men grilling hot dogs with bacon, guys selling hot ears of corn drenched in mayonnaise and salty cheese, women with coolers full of homemade tamales wrapped in banana leaves, and the ubiquitous paleteros ringing their bells as they peddled popsicles and luridly-colored blooms of cotton candy.

The really serious evangelicals were clustered on the northeast side of the plaza, next to the guys hustling bus transfers. Repent, burn, alleluia, amen, repent. And this was where we were headed: ground zero for prophecies shouted out through crappy little amps, accompanied by tambourines and clapping and the occasional psychotic preacher howling about hell so relentlessly that the transit cops would finally have to tell him to go home.

“Oh my God, Sara,” Martha had groaned, that first year I told her where I was planning to be on Ash Wednesday. “Are you really going over to the plaza in, like, full church drag?”

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

I tried to sound nonchalant, but ever since the idea of celebrating Ash Wednesday in the street had seized me, the line between respectable Episcopal churchgoer and lunatic evangelist had been rapidly eroding. I hadn’t told Martha we were planning to kneel on the sidewalk and pray.

Because there was no line, really. There was no boundary but the very thin layers of skin between my thumb and a stranger’s forehead, made slippery with the shared truth of our mortality. And those ashes, like all blessings, were going to dirty us both up, unleashing a power that flowed back and forth, creating space for the good news to spring up new between us.

Those of us in cassocks on Ash Wednesday, those shouting repentance at rush hour through their amps, were hardly “bringing church to the streets.” If the Mission meant anything, it was about how church––not the buildings, not the tax-exempt legal entities, but the complex, contradictory, earthy, passionate and mutually indwelling body of Christ––was already living there.

People were out in the streets of the holy city, the Mission, encountering God and the saints and angels and each other––sometimes a lot more intensely than they’d bargained for. They were out there praying, sinning, repenting, being baptized into the muddy river of life that God is always flowing through. They were living, for real, in the one church that the Spirit is forever stirring up to make all things new...