Vomit and Ashes

We took ashes out into Dupont Circle this past Ash Wednesday. At 8:30am on Wednesday, Jeff and I roamed around Dupont Circle, stopping at the Dupont Metro for awhile, letting the strangers we were among know that it was Ash Wednesday. “We have ashes for Ash Wednesday. Would you like to receive?” In the evening, we went back out again before our Ash Wednesday service. I went on this shift with Andy Thomas, Pilgrims Young Adult Volunteer, to share ashes in the dark and freezing cold.

Andy and I walked up P Street, stopping a few folks along the way, asking if they’d like to receive ashes. At one point, we were two for two.

That quickly changed as we parked ourselves at the south end of the Dupont Metro. People just blazed past us. It was ear-bud-palooza out there in the evening commute. Don’t want to interact with your environment? Wear ear buds while walking around. Need an excuse not to make eye contact with another human being? Ear buds.

After getting a whole lot of “No’s”, Andy and I walked up to Dupont Circle, traffic circle + public space + resting place for many among the benches that encircle a large, stone water fountain. In reasonable weather, the benches can be lined with bike messengers, homeless folks, folks wearing ties, folks wearing pencil skirts, folks playing chess.

With the temperature around 25 degrees, the benches looked empty until Andy and I noticed 2 figures sitting on the outer circle of benches. We headed over. As we approached the two guys, I noticed one leaning over. As we got closer, we realized the guy was puking.

Stomach bile. Chunks of food. Mouth spit.

First thought–This is fucking gross, turn around and head back to Pilgrim.

Second thought–This is fucking gross, share the ashes.

I asked one of the bench buddies if he’d like ashes. He looked at me with eyes glazed over, slowly rocking back and forth. Somehow he gave a “No.”

I turned to his companion who at this point was sitting upright and wiping puke off his mouth.

I asked him, “Would you like ashes for Ash Wednesday?”

With the same type of glazed over eyes, with the same type of rocking back and forth, this guy said, “yes.”

I looked up at Andy as if to shore myself up for this moment. Then I blurted out to Andy, “remind me to wash my hands after this.”

Clearly not the most pastoral of words. And true.

I started to lean in to our friend on the bench and he slowly, I mean slowly, lifted up his winter skull cap to make room for the ashes.

“From dust you have come, to dust you shall return” and plunk went the ashes on his skin kept warm by the winter hat. He slowly pulled his skull cap back in place.

Andy and I hustled back to Pilgrims for our 7pm in-the-building worship.


Ritual and liturgy on the streets creates a mash-up of people. Strangers get knocked-up against each other. Separated out from the liner, sequential movement of an in-the-building type of liturgy, ashes on the streets expose ritual’s power. Gone are the pews, the communion table, the font. Gone is the church architecture that sets the context and initial meaning of the ritual.

On the streets, ritual gets blown apart from the confines of Church walls and can be interpreted a million different ways with no one in a robe or a title or ordination status to define.

I have no idea what our friend on the bench was thinking when I asked him about the ashes. What we did see was the lifting of his skull cap. Even though this guy was completely inebriated, he had enough awareness/memory/body memory to lift his hat to make room for the ashes. Does he even remember?

Dupont Circle isn’t too far where the million dollar row houses of Dupont and Georgetown exist. Embassy Row is right up the street. The gardens and front stoops are Southern Living beautiful. The neighborhoods are images of stability.

Dupont Circle absorbs the grid of the city street architecture–Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues come together to create this circular public space. public street space goes from linear and grid-like to circular; the Circle itself being a shape that has no beginning and no end.

Grid of Dupont Circle. The green dot is the Circle.

An experience like our friend on the bench vomiting, and then saying yes to ashes, tells me that the sheer unpredictability of ritual on the streets makes it near impossible to assume the direction of God’s Spirit. We’d like to think faith and Church life move in a grid-like, sequential way: birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage, funeral.

Out on the streets, God’s Spirit gets vomited up all over the place, the Spirit symbolized in a circle of puke on a public sidewalk and incarnate in the one who vomits.

Ashes on the Streets

On Ash Wednesday,  Church of the Pilgrims took ashes out on to the streets. This public ritual was inspired by conversations with Sara Miles and her new book, City of God: Faith in the Streets.

Why take ashes to the streets on Ash Wednesday?

While Pilgrims liturgy pushes all types of boundaries and takes on the imaginative, inventive, and ancient in our Sunday liturgy, it's still inside a building. We take risks and invite vulnerability on any given Sunday, and it's still inside a building.

My formation through the Open Door Community in Atlanta was based on public witness and liturgy. It was my time on the streets with Ed Loring and Murphy Davis and the improvised, unpredictable, unedited, and my-body-in-close-proximity-to-strangers that cracked open my heart.  Ashes mark human solidarity, mortality, and a call for the Church to drop its cowardly and less imaginative ways, the need to safely be inside, and deny new experiences. In essence-- we need to stop hiding from the Holy Spirit.

Sara gave me the hot tips for ashes on the streets:

  • Use baby jars to hold the ashes.
  • Go out in pairs.
  • Wear visible clergy drag.
  • Don't stand in one place, symbolizing how the Church waits for people.  Walk around, symbolizing the Church in motion.
  • The Holy is already present, incarnate in the streets.  Drop the ego in thinking we are bringing God into the streets.

Pilgrims gathered to take ashes out at 8:30am and 5:30pm on Ash Wednesday. Before heading out, we each shared why we showed up. We practiced our liturgical lines, including our own 1-2 sentence response about why we were taking ashes outside.

Off we went.

I was with Hannah Massey, who attends Pilgrims. We quickly worked out a system--Hannah worked the bus stops, I stopped people in cold tracks on the sidewalk. We both went into restaurants to extend ashes to the most invisible of workers--those cooking and behind the counter.

Most people didn't want the ashes, still quite friendly in their "no thanks!"  A Georgetown bus stop had 20+ people standing there. "Yes!" I thought. Goldmine for ritual experience. Almost all said no, with their noses an inch from their phones. That was really humbling.

Hannah extended ashes to one person who responded, "I'm Catholic and from Chicago! Is that OK?" Goodbye boundaries.....I took ashes into the PNC Bank where an employee jumped at the invitation. Ashes. A bank. Repentance.

Judy and Hannah from Bagels, Etc. on P Street talk about  the ashes 3 weeks later.

Every person who I passed was a choice--do I offer them ashes or not? I became aware of my assumptions about how people looked--"oh, they don't look like they'd want ashes." WTF?

Every person became an opportunity to connect.  The possibility for connection and community felt endless. I was a bit overwhelmed with these feelings. Why aren't we out here more? Who are all these people? What keeps them going each day? What injustices do they see around them? How can we be part of each others lives? Liturgy on the streets forced these connections and thoughts.

Dupont Circle felt like one gigantic, sacred community while sharing ashes.

Thanks be to God.