The reality of our lives is that more of God’s people are out there in the streets than in church.
I’ve been wanting to do this for years. Ash Wednesday arrived clear and cold this year. I left my house around 7 a.m., having arranged to meet my new buddy, the Rev. Carm Evans (Skyline Methodist) in the parking lot of St. Mark’s UMC for ashes-to-go for any morning commuters wishing to receive it. We had decided ahead of time to robe up, thinking that at the very least, seeing a couple of fully vested clergy standing outside in February would attract some attention. Our cars parked side-by-side, we muttered to each other as we robed up and discovered that our vestments would not fit over our bulky winter coats, wondering if we would be warm enough (not quite)
The Rev. Tom Edwards, the pastor of St. Mark’s, was already there and had one drive-up customer already. He had done a good job publicizing ashes-to-go to his congregation, so a number of them who could not attend Ash Wednesday services came by. We each has ashes, a book-mark size handout we’d put together with an Ash Wednesday prayer and our church service times, and some handiwipes. The set-up is that easy. We switched off so one person could go inside and get warm. We had about eight takers, but unfortunately there was a fender-bender involving about four cars (no one was hurt!) right at the entrance to the church, so we stopped around 8:30.
Carm and I met again just before 5 p.m. at St. Philip’s Lutheran, next to the Pathmark shopping center on a very busy section of Kirkwood Highway on the outbound side. The sky was gray by that time, and I decided just to put on my cotta and purple stole over my black winter coat. This afternoon experience really brought home to both of us what we were doing. One car drove up with two young women in it who hadn’t been to church in years. They said they had seen the sign yesterday and figured, “why not?” Another car drove up with a man and a boy I would guess to be about 11. It felt as though a significant threshold was crossed for all of us in these brief encounters.
In a blog post to Huffington Post called “Faith in the Streets,” Sarah Miles, author of Jesus Freak, writes:
“… there’s a growing network of “unhoused” congregations that meet outdoors to serve people who live on the streets; all kinds of new public rituals of blessing (of bicycles, of pets, of backpacks) are taking place in parks and on sidewalks; there’s a reinvigorated interest in outdoor religious processions, and there are hundreds and hundreds of churches offering ashes outside for Ash Wednesday. Since 2010, I’ve taken ashes to the streetcorners, taquerias, bars and beauty shops of my own neighborhood on Ash Wednesday, and the practice has taught me a lot about faith.
While God is remarkably flexible about showing up anywhere — in a feed trough, a burning bush or a prison cell — the eyes of my own faith see the most on urban streets. I believe paradise is a garden, but heaven is a city.”
I love church on Sunday. I love church any day of the week. And, the reality of our lives is that more of God’s people are out there in the streets than in church. When we go there, we say in effect “the church is willing and able to come to you with God’s invitation to relationship, repentance (i.e., metanoia) and healing.” Ashes to Go moves the encounter with God into the public spaces of everyday life, and we too are changed. – Martha+