It’s becoming popular in some places to distribute ashes in public places such as train stations. Bragging about Ash Wednesday is most unseemly, but here I go. I’m proud that a small church in the South Bronx was ahead of the curve on this…by thirty years. This was not due to any cutting-edge pastoral vision, but thanks to Carmelo at the bodega. We had two scheduled services for Ash Wednesday, one in English and one in Spanish, until the year we had the unscheduled one. Carmelo, who owned the corner store by the church, wanted me to bring him some ashes since he couldn’t leave the store. I figured that taking ashes to the storebound fit into the same category as taking Communion to the homebound. When I came down the street with the bowl of ashes, I passed the group of men and women who hung out in front of the bodega in order to have easy access to the beer sold inside. We always exchanged greetings. I invariably invited them to church, and invariably they didn’t come. But on this particular day when they saw me approach with the ashes, as if on cue, they all knelt down on the sidewalk, obedient to some internal rubric. They begged me for ashes, and then some of them got up and went to find their friends. In the end, there was a congregation of about twenty-five kneeling by the bodega.
On Ash Wednesday the following year, we decided to be intentional about taking the service to the street. There was regular worship in the sanctuary, but in the afternoon we went outside. More than a hundred people came asking to be blessed and marked with the ashes. They asked for prayers for strength in recovery from addiction, prayers related to health and relationship struggles. We weren’t more than twenty feet from the front doors of the church, and yet I knew that very few of those people would ever have walked through the church doors to request the same prayers and blessing. Why not? They felt ashamed to enter the church. They were not homebound or storebound, but shamebound and afraid of crossing the border, afraid of being met with judgment and rejection. They didn’t realize how identical their condition was to that of the members who would later gather to worship inside the doors, many also HIV-positive, in various stages of addiction recovery, abused, homeless, poor–like all of us, for as Luther put it, we are all beggars. But there was no way for those outside to know this if those inside were not willing to come out and worship on the street, becoming by their very bodily presence a door into the welcoming body of Christ. People like the Rev. Andrena Ingram, who was a lay minister that day and is now marking ashes on her Philadelphia community as their pastor. The idea of ashes in the street seems to be catching on and it’s about time!