Got Ashes?

AshesThis Wednesday marks a significant time of fasting and contemplation in the Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday the beginning of Lent. I know around this time my Christian friends become a little less fun to hang out with, giving up social media, going out to eat or drinking alcohol for the forty days leading up to Easter. This contemporary ritual mirrors the forty days and forty nights that many Christians believe Jesus spent in the desert where he was also tempted by Satan. It is one of the most ritualized days in the Christian calendar; as you will most likely experience by simply riding on the CTA that day, finding yourself giving double takes to those who have received ashes on their foreheads or hands. The ashes themselves are religious symbols reminding followers of the themes of Lent: struggle, contemplation, and hope of resurrection; not to mention it makes for a great free facial.

When there are “high holy days” in the church like Ash Wednesday, I think a lot about the tension between the church and LGBTQ persons. I think about the ways in which many of us have been literally and emotionally barred from sacred spaces. While many of us have let go of religious traditions there are many who still long for religious ritual and spiritual connection. While the desire to be spiritually connected might be there, physically stepping into a church can be too painful for us and families. I also think about churches who are welcoming to LGBTQ folk, who claim to have their doors wide open for us to come in, but might not understand that often simply walking into a space that resembles painful past experiences isn’t that easy for many LGBTQ folk.

That is why I was quite intrigued when I heard last year about what many churches are calling “Ashes to Go.” Within the last 3 years many Chicago area churches (overwhelmingly Episcopalian) have been “meeting people where they are” with ashes on train stations, outside of coffee shops and walking down Michigan Avenue. Local clergy hold signs reading “Got Ashes?” and hold small jars of ashes at the ready for those who wish to partake outside the walls of the church. This idea began in St. Louis, Missouri with Rev. Teresa K. M. Danieley, who is the Rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church, as somewhat of a joke between her and an Ecumenical clergy group. According to the Ashes to Go website, it then became apparent that “drive thru” ashes would be a good opportunity to do something different as a group of congregations that “are open and affirming to LGBT people.” In 2010 it made its way to Chicago through three Episcopal congregations providing ashes at train stations. They were given to all who wished to partake and “many responded with tears of smiles of gratitude that the church would come to them.”

Reminiscent of sandwich board, soap-box preachers, I can see how this idea might turn some people off. I worried about how this might be just another hipster-church trend attached to words like “evangelize” that many people, especially LGBTQ folk, are turned off by. As a person who is one of those people who I mentioned above that long for ritual, I also was concerned that this was just another attempt at religion becoming less about connection and more about ease of use, like a smartphone app.

Last year I participated in a local “Ashes to Go” event to see what this was all about. I found it actually to be quite the opposite of what I had feared it might turn out to be. For me, the experience itself was less about evangelism and more about the “secular” and “spiritual” being more connected rather than separated. There were many people who looked at us like we were crazy. There were many who spoke of their distaste for religion but their longing for spiritual experience. There were many who were quite religious and welcomed the new experience. There was such a gamut of feelings, emotions, life experiences and beliefs that it was really about religious experience coming to be a part of those things rather than trying to convert it, contain it or change it.

The themes of Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday, struggle, contemplation, and hope of new life are already a part of LGBTQ experience, whether religious or nonreligious. There are many churches who will be participating in Ashes to Go who believe this to be true (inclusive and affirming) and those who do not (ranging from apathetic to homophobic); below are some communities that are inclusive that will be at many locations in the city. My hope is that this type of ritual will be just the beginning of a new way of thinking about spirituality, diversity and authentic expressions of identity for both faith traditions and LGBTQ persons.

Pilgrim Faith UCC– Oak Lawn train station 6:30 a.m.-8:15 a.m.

All Saints Chicago Episcopal Church– Brown Line at Damen Ave 6:30-8:30 am and 4:00 p.m.-5:30 p.m.

St. Paul & the Redeemer– 47th St., 53rd St., and 57th St. Metra Stations Hyde Park 7:30 a.m.-9:00 am.

Church of the Advent– Blue Line at Logan Square 7:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m.

St. John’s Episcopal Church– Irving Park Metra and Blue Line 6:30 a.m.-8:30 a.m.

Church of Our Savior Episcopal Church– Red Line at Fullerton 7:00 a.m.-8:00 a.m. and 5:15 p.m-6:15 p.m.

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About BC

BC is a Texan transplant to the city of Chicago, moving here to attend theology school. She has a great love for a good glass of wine, great books, meaningful conversations, her family, dance parties, and crime shows. Her great hope in this life is that LGBTQ stories will be equally heard and valued, and she believes that religious/spiritual experience and dialogue is one of many ways to work towards such a reality. BC is a pastor by trade but a mystical religious mutt in spirit, hoping to soak up as many understandings of hope each person has to offer.


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