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.

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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.

Confirmation and an At-Table Service

Confirmation at Church of the Pilgrims comes every once in awhile. This year we had two confirmands.

Emma and Sam (my 13 yo) were confirmed into the Church the last Sunday in May. Emma and Sam had spent the past 6 months in a shared confirmation process with Western Presbyterian Church down in Foggy Bottom. Western had five kids. We had two. We joined forces.

Every 4th Sunday of the month, we'd gather at either Pilgrims or Western for a dinner liturgy. We shared a meal (upgrading from spaghetti to a taco bar as the year progressed) while we shared in liturgy---prayers, candle lighting, hearing a topic of the day like OT genre, Advent birth narratives, Jesus as subversive agent against Empire. We'd chug root beer and marshmallows, made s'mores.  We'd talk over each other and then we'd listen, then start talking over each other again. The youth would annoy the adults, the adults would annoy the  youth, adults would have to separate people....you know...it was like a family dinner table.

When it came time to plan Pilgrims confirmation liturgy, I knew I wanted to share this At-table experience with the rest of Pilgrims. So the tables and chairs were hauled into the sanctuary for the liturgy.

A glimpse of our confirmation liturgy!

Two of the confirmation mentors started off with this welcome:

We welcome you to this at table worship, a time to share in a meal and worship together.

We  gather in this particular way for a couple of reasons: this is how the early Church gathered for worship—at tables, in a home, sharing in a meal, sharing in communion, song and prayer.

 Today we do the same. And we celebrate two particular people—Sam Goff Glennon and Emma Oosterveld. Today we confirm Sam and Emma, we celebrate their confirmation into the christian church. We confirm Sam and Emma together, as a community, because this is how we live out our faith. We gather at table because this is how Sam and Emma gathered with youth from Western Presbyterian the 4th Sunday evening of each month in a shared confirmation process.

Sam and Emma had their confirmation process at table. being at table today gives a glimpse of confirmation process.  So welcome! We live in the ways of Jesus which means all are welcome at these tables to eat, drink, connect, and build community. Let us confirm Sam and Emma! Let us worship God.

We continued with candle lighting and singing. Then we broke the bread with 2 of the mentors and Sam and Emma. Emma said the words of institution while Sam broke the bread. 

Emma: But what Jesus did most of all was share meals with everyone who wanted to eat. he liked having dinner so much that some people even called him a glutton.

Sam: Jesus would eat with people who broke the law, he would eat with people who didn’t take many baths, he would eat with people nobody else liked.

Emma: At the end of his life, Jesus had one last meal with his friends. he took the bread, gave thanks to you, and said, “take and eat. this is by body. do this. remember me."

Then one of the mentors invited people to share in the bread and the cup around the tables. Then we shared in food on the tables: s'mores, cheese, fruit and such.

Emily Wilkes, our intern, told the story of friends busting through a roof for their paralyzed friend.

Folks then wrote hopes and dreams (after a 3 minute sermon) for Sam and Emma on sticky notes, symbolizing that's what Church does---busts open anything for all of us to get as close to the Presence as possible. Our hopes and dreams take us to that Presence.

Then came the confirmation.

Bettina Burgett, our Clerk, offered these opening words. Sam, Emma, Bettina, and I were around our small communion table amidst the tables.

Sam and Emma, you have completed a 6 month process of confirmation, an experience of community, liturgy, conversation, questioning, laughing, service and learning with your companions from Western Presbyterian Church.

You went on retreat at The Pilgrimage with the Western crew, making meals for Open Table, hearing Eric from the National Coalition for the Homeless speak about his experience of homelessness. 

You took bag lunches around Dupont Circle and McPherson Square. You fought of cockroaches in the Pilgrimage kitchen and Paul Reuther had to intervene on your middle school pranks.

You did improv with Andy, served at Open Table. You were cared for and loved by your mentors: Matt, Jeff, Lauren, and Carol

You went before Session, sharing your noticings and wonderings of this community.

Emma and Sam, in front of Pilgrims, with our support and love, do you wish to be confirmed into the Church?

Then people shared their hopes and dreams for Sam and Emma, people standing up one at a time where they were at their tables and reading their hopes and dreams. The 4 mentors went first. Most beautiful part---people affirming Sam and Emma as they are NOW as human beings. Total acceptance.

Then the questions were asked. Bettina started off with the question of trust. Then I asked a person at each table to stand and ask a scripted out question. As that person stood and asked the question, that person's entire table stood up, symbolizing solidarity with Sam and Emma.

People--this makes me teary just writing about it. Oh, and I had pondered over how to do this for some time. Original idea came from Margee Iddings. Then I emailed trusty Andrew Wassenich, my improv guy and member at Pilgrims, about how to pull off what I wanted to do. Andrew solved this in, say 35 seconds. People are beautiful.

The questions:

  • Emma and Sam, Do you trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? Sam and Emma:  I do.
  • Emma and Sam, will you seek to be a faithful member of this congregation, and be part of the building up of this community? Will you?
  • Sam and Emma, when the world acts in violent ways, when you see the meanness of others, when you walk past a homeless and hungry person on the street corner, will you choose the way of life and live with compassion and kindness? Will you?
  • To the congregation: Do you fully accept Sam and Emma as equal members of this congregation, embracing their honesty, truth-telling, and creativity? Do you?
  • Will you, Sam and Emma, and you the community gathered, commit yourselves to this life? Will you?
  • Will you, Sam and Emma, and you the community gathered, love neighbor as yourself and strive for peace and justice? Will you?

Then  Sam and Emma shared how they want to live out their faith in the upcoming year. Both want to take bag lunches out to Dupont Circle and share with hungry people. Amazing.

We laid hands on Sam and Emma and prayed.

Then....Pilgrims has a Registry Book---the book that has the names and dates of all the new members, baptisms, and weddings. It has the names of the very first church members going back to the early 1900's. Bettina, as Clerk, is keeper-of-the-book. After laying on of hands, Sam and Emma wrote their own names into our Book of Life and Bettina wrote down the date and "confirmation."

This was the most moving part for me----witnessing Sam and Emma be part of this great cloud of witnesses of Pilgrims, using their own hands to write their own names, having the congregation witness the act in a public way rather than the their names going into the book in a private, off-liturgy moment.

THEN.....we shared the cup with the mentors and Sam and Emma doing the words and actions. THEN we shared a toast to Sam and Emma with our little communion cups. The early Church did this while at dinner and liturgy--toasting to Jesus rather than Caesar and Empire. So....we toasted to Sam and Emma. Then we kept on toasting to life and people and love and stuff. We toasted to Beau Biden, who had died the day before. Joe--we love you.

We sang a song then ate cake.

It was a wonderful day.

Communion on the Streets for Pride

Capital Pride takes shape outside Pilgrims.  That's our intern, Kristin, in the front of this pix. Check out the bubbles in front of her...coming out of our bubble machine.
Capital Pride takes shape outside Pilgrims. That's our intern, Kristin, in the front of this pix. Check out the bubbles in front of her...coming out of our bubble machine.

Capital Pride was last weekend in Washington, D.C. and the Saturday afternoon parade starts at the footsteps of Pilgrims. And by starting out in front of Pilgrims I mean this the chaos you see the picture above.

Pilgrims opens its doors for Pride for bathrooms, water (with our water station handled by the Fairfax Hotel) and this year we added communion in the sanctuary. Our sanctuary had the AC going full blast and one of our Parish Associates, Charles Van Gorder, was present to share communion, talk, and be present. Our sanctuary became a meditative space for those seeking some quiet and stillness from the chaotic, sensory, rainbow scene out front.

This year we also decided to take communion to the More Light Presbyterian marchers while we waited for the parade to start. This meant taking communion to 22nd and N Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20037.

Our fabulous interns, Emily, Andrew, and Kristin took old communion trays and made them fabulous.

Emily cut up baguettes left over from lunch from Pride officials lunch and staging area at Pilgrims.

Jess Fisher, former intern, and I took the bread and the trays to the More Light Presbyterian waiting area. We shared in communion using the human microphone method--a method used by the Occupy movement to run meetings and liturgies. We used improv for the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving. The whole thing went something like this:

Me: We gather

Crowd: We gather

Me: To share a sacred meal on the streets

Crowd: To share a sacred meal on the streets....

Me: What acts of creation do we give thanks for? People called those out. What acts of the prophets do we need to remember? People called those out. What acts of Jesus do we need to remember? What acts of the Spirit? People called those out.

Then we used the human microphone for the Words of Institution.

We shared.

As Jess and I walked back to Pilgrims with what was left of the juice and bread, some folks stopped us to have their own communion moment. Before taking the bread and juice, one person said to Jess, "I have done some very bad things in my life. Very bad things." Jess shared with love and acceptance.

Reflections from sharing communion on the streets:

1) You know all those rules and constructs that the Church  has around ordination and sacraments and whatever? Guess what?  The streets don't care. Thank you, Jesus! When Jess (non-ordained) shared communion, the person didn't ask if she was ordained. Jess didn't ask if the person had been baptized. Who has time for those questions on the streets? Jess carried the symbols of love, life, community, and new beginnings and the streets called her to share freely. For me, the streets expose the absurd nature of the Church. Can you imagine if Jess had said, "Oh, wait. I can only share this with you if you are baptized." Or I had said, "Jess, get out of the way, this is for me the ordained to serve." Seriously? #assholeclergy

2) God is there. We didn't take the Church to 22nd and N. Nor did we take God there. God and the Church and the Spirit are already on the streets. We were greeted by God on the streets. "Well hello there Pilgrim people and MLP's. Thanks for being here on the streets. I've been here all along. Says God every friggin' day."

3) Boundaries get blown up on the streets. See #1. But there wasn't a table to center us. Or walls of a church to show us we are Church. I had to call out "The Lord Be with You" in a loud, directive way and get folks to bunch up together. We had to create our own space within the space of 22nd and N. We also started on our own initiative. No time and space boundaries of liturgy that prompted me to start like "now it's communion because that comes after the hymn which comes after the sermon."

4) Sensory + the Sacred + the Profane:  The quiet nature of the sanctuary that people expect? The table manners of church respectability? Pigeons walking around? Garbage at our feet? There is no separation of the sacred and the profane on the streets. It's all sacred. The symbolic nature of the Eucharist gets infused all over the streets. And the sacred nature of the streets gets infused into us and the sacred meal. Again, boundaries are pushed, challenged, and blown-up when you have dueling piano players on a float behind you and Cher being blasted in front of you. The senses, our lives, our hopes, dreams, urban air, urban sky, urban asphalt, human brokenness and joy....it all gets knocked up together on the streets in a way, for me, that doesn't happen in a sanctuary.  The "this is how we are supposed to act with communion, at the table" gets re-configured on the streets. And maybe not re-configured but you are you on the streets and less of what is expected of you, constructed of you by the Church and Empire.

Why are we doing communion ONLY behind closed doors? And who decided that along the way? And why is that the way we follow?

Some of the photos in the gallery were taken by Marti Mefford.

Capital Pride as PROOF People Seek Creativity

Pilgrims tower behind these fabulous human beings.
Pilgrims tower behind these fabulous human beings.

The month of June is "Pride Month" as cities throughout the U.S. pick weekends throughout the four weeks to celebrate their own queer community. The month of June is important because on the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969, "Stonewall" took place. The Stonewall riots were a series of spontaneous, violent push-back ("Hey, NYC cops. Stop beating the shit out of gay folks") demonstrations by members of the gay community against a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in the West Village of NYC. Stonewall is considered a pivotal moment in the movement for LGBTQ rights.

Washington D.C.'s Pride Week is the first week in June, culminating with the Pride Parade and Festival.

The Pride parade starts at the steps of Church of the Pilgrims. The parade literally surrounds our building as the start-off.

For me, Pride confirms people seek public spaces that are alive with color, sound, joy, hospitality, and creativity.

Here's my "data":

1) Open the Damn Doors! Pilgrims opened it's doors for bathrooms, water, and cooling off with the A.C. for the clothed, barely clothed, and basically no clothed parade goers. Our resident statistician, Gerry Hendershot, estimated 1,800 people came through our doors that Saturday afternoon, with 20 people PER MINUTE coming through the 3:15-4:15 hour (parade started at 4:30pm). Toilet paper, bathrooms, lots and lots of water and cups. Basic stuff, folks. Memorable hospitality.

2) Gender Neutral Bathrooms: We made all 3 of our bathrooms gender neutral with Carol Huls, one of our members, directly urinal and stall traffic. "Two urinals in this bathroom, two stalls in this bathroom...you decide!"

3) More Light Presbyterians stepped it up with simple t-shirts: rainbow colored, easy to read words on the front and back. We looked like a human rainbow as we gathered and marched in the parade together.

4) Drag Queens, Drag Kings---my favorites. I love those who bust up the gender binary and social construction of gender.

Same float but burrito rider had on underwear. Clothes? So boring!
Same float but burrito rider had on underwear. Clothes? So boring!

5) Floats! Here comes the wild creativity. Best float in my view goes to Chipotle. A guy, in his underwear, was riding not a

mechanical bull but a mechanical BURRITO! 3 cheers to that creative staff meeting!

6) Color, color and more color: Dupont Circle turns into a rainbow-palooza with restaurants, hotels, row houses alive with their version of the rainbow in fabric and streamers.  Clearly people take an enormous amount of time in the planning and presentation of their rainbow.

7) The Parade Watchers: I can't really call folks "watchers" because the energy, yelling, screaming with joy coming out of the folks lined-up to watch blurs the boundaries between who is in the parade and who is watching. People are their own human "float" in how they dress for Pride, move their bodies to touch those marching, and the profound expression of joy.

8) Pilgrims Unleashed More Creativity: Who knew if we gave Rob Nelb, Elder for Congregational Care, a bunch of flowers he would flutter his way through the parade route--THE ENTIRE PARADE ROUTE--in a rainbow cape. Our booth at the Festival became more interactive--let's make our booth this year more "like us" was the mantra.

Church with closed doors? Gender specific bathrooms? Church without color, sound, joy, and glee? Neighborhood without color, sound, and joy? Nope. Sorry. Pride shows me that people are seeking Something Else.