Today is Ash Wednesday: the beginning of the season of Lent and one of the more somber days on the church calendar. It's also a particular favorite of mine. Ash Wednesday is for reflection, slowing down, looking at where you may have strayed away from God and discerning what you might do to bring yourself closer over the next 40 days in preparation for Easter. To mark the beginning of Lent (after the pancake-and-Jambalaya feast of Mardi Gras - Fat Tuesday), many Christians engage in the practice of memento mori: recalling that "we are dust and to dust we shall return", and sealing that reminder with a smudge of ashes made from burnt Palm Sunday palm fronds imposed on the forehead, usually in the shape of a cross.
Two years ago, a parishioner at my church began a wonderful ministry called Ashes on the Way - sending lay ministers to nearby locations with ashes and prayer cards, to offer to folks who for various reasons might not otherwise have the opportunity to mark the beginning of Lent with ashes. To many this tradition is held very dear and serves as a transition point to bring them into the Lenten season.
Last year (my first time helping to bring ashes to the streets) there were four of us and we wore everyday clothes. This year, seven people participated, in morning and afternoon shifts. There were four of us again at BART for the noon lunch commute and in hopes of being more recognizable in our role and bringing more people in to talk to us, we wore albs: white ankle-length robes, with rope cinctures to belt them.
So try and picture this for a moment: four well-meaning Episcopalians wearing long, white robes, some with hoods down against our shoulders, standing on the sidewalk in front of the Downtown Berkeley BART station. In 2017. In our current political climate. It may be that we didn't think this through all the way. Among business-suited commuters, folks rushing to or from errands and tourists of every sort, there were a large number of African American teens - most likely returning to Berkeley High after lunch. Some looked at us oddly, one or two did a double-take and then one boy said,
"Wow, look - KKK!"I was caught off-guard but quickly turned and replied "no, not at all" with a smile and we kept walking. The next group gave us the same, wary looks. Right. Four White people (granted, we were all women) standing on the sidewalk in long, white robes. Got it. Yikes.
We discussed whether maybe we should lose the albs altogether, but decided to give it a little time and see whether we couldn't use it as an opportunity to engage people. So we started to ask folks who walked by whether they would like ashes for Ash Wednesday, making it a point to direct the question especially towards younger people of color and others who gave us that particular look that we'd quickly come to understand meant, "What are Klan people doing in Berkeley?" One African American woman probably in her seventies came up to us happily, to receive ashes. There had been some teens near her talking about us, and she said, I know you're not Ku Klux Klan. I told them - you're Sisters! God gave me the ability to discern and I know you don't have evil in you. But some of these younger folks don't - so I told them." It was a truly lovely moment.
We split into two pairs to take different BART entryways and proceeded to ask, smile, mark foreheads with ashes, inform people about what we were doing and share a few prayer cards.
Offer, smile, smudge, rinse, repeat.
We were a LOT busier than we'd been last year; enough so, that we gave up on the original plan - one of us placing ashes and the other handing out cards - and both opened our containers of ash so we could give them to everyone who wanted them!
We often missed people who walked behind or around us while we were engaged with others, including a new group of African American teens, most of them girls, who gave us looks and started chatting excitedly amongst themselves. One girl came towards me, evidently having told one of her friends to take a picture of her standing next to the women in (unbelievably!) long, white robes.
As she approached, I smiled and asked, "would you like ashes for Ash Wednesday?"... and she stopped, with a surprised look on her face. Then her face lit up and she smiled back at me and said, "OH!"... and then, "Yes!". I imposed the ashes on her forehead and she turned and ran back to her group, laughing.
As they headed on their way, I heard a couple of them question her (why she'd talked to me, I'm guessing) and she said, in a clear voice that carried quite well and as if she'd known it all the time, "What were YOU thinking? It's Ash Wednesday, bitches!"