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.