Today is Ash Wednesday. For Christians it marks the beginning of the Lenten season — a season of preparation leading to Holy Week and Easter. For the second year in a row I went with members of the Not So Churchy community and the folks from Presbyterian Welcome to Union Square to impose ashes on any passersby who wanted them. This year was a little bit different from last year because this year we got some press in the morning from the New York Daily News with a headline that reads, “Too busy for church on Ash Wednesday?” I wasn’t too keen on that title because that really isn’t the context we held last year, and neither was it the context I wanted to hold this year. Now don’t get me wrong, certainly we were there to minister to the people who were running around in the “hustle and bustle” (as the Fox 5 reporter put it) of NYC life, dashing over for a dab of ashes on their way down to the subway platform. But that wasn’t the whole thing for me. For me, the purpose in being out in Union Square distributing ashes was to provide a place for people who don’t want to go to church, who don’t have a church home, who feel left out of the churches of their childhood, or who might even think they’re not worthy of going into a church. My own experience with church growing up wasn’t horrible, but I definitely knew that the “rules” of the church meant that I could never be a full participant according to them. And so now I am always striving to create and be a part of spiritual communities where everyone is welcome.
Today I met many people from both of those groups. Some people certainly came up because they were on their way to something or from something. Some came because they didn’t know what church to go to, didn’t want to spend time in a church, or felt like they didn’t belong. Everyone I spoke with was grateful for the moment of intimacy, the spirituality, the human interaction, and some connection to their creator. There were mothers pushing strollers, tourists from abroad, believers and disbelievers. Only one person all day scoffed at what we were doing. “Free ashes? Pffth! You’re supposed to get those from a priest in a church,” she said at the same moment a jubilant woman, clutching a print-out of the Daily News article came bounding over asking if she could make a donation and excitedly receiving her ashes. I personally heard people’s heartfelt prayers and was privileged to be able to pray with them: a woman asked for prayers for her grandfather who had just died in Germany—she hadn’t been able to get there in time; a man asked for prayers for his boyfriend and his family; a woman received ashes and then asked to take some with her for a friend who couldn’t make it.
In the midst of all this, reporters from four news outlets were there asking questions and taking photographs. Adam Janos, a blogger for the Wall Street Journal “Metropolis” section wrote this piece, “On Ash Wednesday, a Sidewalk is Their Church,” in which he interviews a New Yorker who says, “I used to go [to church] as a boy. But now … I feel guilty about going.” And so he got his ashes from us. Sure, it would be great if he realized that he doesn’t have to be free from his guilt before he goes to church, but at least we were there to meet him where he was. For me, that was the blessing of the day—to be able to meet people where they are and show them they are welcome just as they are, as am I.