Trendy? Maybe, but the church needs more of it

After overcoming initial reluctance, the experience of offering ashes on a busy Washington street revealed the deep needs of passersby.

By Amy Butler

I am, in general, a bigger fan of starting trends than following them. Which is why, when I read about Ashes on the Go last year in the Washington Post, I firmly told myself there was no way I’d be doing anything like that.

My stated reasons were as follows:

• I am fundamentally opposed to anything resembling trendy church.
• Convenience when it comes to Christian practice is of little interest to me; I reject consumer ecclesiology.
• It seems vaguely un-solemn to talk about returning to dust loud enough to be heard over the cussing taxi driver stuck in traffic five feet from where you’re standing. Why not just come inside and enjoy the stained glass?

I also might have been opposed just because I didn’t think of it first.

Whatever my true resistance, I was determined to buck the trend again this year. That is, until Sara Miles came to visit.

Sara Miles is a writer and Episcopal laywoman who recently published City of God, a book about Ash Wednesday on the streets of San Francisco. Sara visited my church a few weeks ago and talked with me about her book, which recounts beautiful stories of her experience offering ashes on the streets of San Francisco one Ash Wednesday. Reading her book wasn’t enough to convince me we should try this ourselves, but talking with Sara made me (grudgingly) concede that maybe we could give this idea a try this year.

Butler Ashes on the corner 2Unwilling to totally jump on the popular bandwagon, I insisted we ditch the Ashes on the Go moniker and adopt our own: Ashes on the Corner (rebel to the dying end).

And with that, this Ash Wednesday we headed out to the busy intersection in Washington where our church building stands.

As usual, the Spirit of God, who probably spends a lot of her time laughing at me, had a few lessons to teach me through this experience. Here are two things I took from my lunchtime Ashes on the Corner experience.

First, it stunned me to see clearly, maybe for the first time ever, the gaping distance between the church, the Institutional Church, and most of the people on the sidewalk right outside its walls. While the crowds passed by not two feet from the side of our building, the distance between most passersby and the institution those walls contain was obvious to even the casual observer.

Here are some feelings I saw in the faces walking by: mild curiosity, as one would bring to a museum display; marked disdain, the sum of a lifetime of disappointment and rejection; surprise, as if they’d never noticed the huge brick building they’d walked past at least twice a day for years.

I wanted to tell them, “We’d welcome you here! You could find a place in this community!” But I could see in ways I’d never seen before the almost insurmountable obstacles between the crowds and the church, a cavern maybe too wide to bridge.

And I knew in a way I’d never known before: it takes a lot of courage to go to church.

It takes a lot of courage to go to church.

Second, in the exchanges I shared with anonymous people on the sidewalk, I felt a powerful force of connection and a deep gratitude for recognition. For once, standing there observing instead of rushing myself, I could see them, clearly: harried, burdened folk, hurrying from one place to another, dragging their pain and doubt and fear and calling their experience “life.”

Not unlike myself, come to think of it.

I could see it when they stopped and asked what the ashes meant, then sighed with relief and recognition. I saw it when I wished a stranger peace and her eyes filled with grateful tears. It was there when I touched a forehead and saw that furrowed brow smooth. I heard it when people passed by, then turned around to come back and say, “Thank you. Thank you for being here today.”

We all want to be seen, to be recognized for something beyond the titles on our business cards or the scuffed construction hat we’re wearing or the shopping cart we’re pushing, filled with the sum total of earthly possessions. We all want that. And shouldn’t the church be leading the way in making that kind of connection happen?

It should.

It seems the church has done an incredible job building walls and letting people know they won’t find what they need so desperately here. The generosity of God’s work in this world cannot be contained in a building, and it most certainly will not be hemmed in by our rules dictating who is in and who is out.

This Ash Wednesday, I confess what meanness and limitation I have been bringing to the practice of Christian community.

It’s a good thing, then, that God’s Spirit doesn’t place limits on me.

She keeps inviting me, again and again, to step out of the places I feel most comfortable, into the streets, where She needs me, and you, to offer relationship and connection to so many who never even thought to look inside.

I learned some important lessons this Ash Wednesday. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy and a generosity in God’s love that will not withstand our best efforts at containment.

I thought I knew that, but maybe I didn’t.

And that kind of reckless welcome is a position some will dismiss as trendy, but this Ash Wednesday I’ve also learned: sometimes trendy is the way to go.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.