March 14, 2014

Reflections on Ashes on the Go 2014

We didn’t go very far with our ashes-on-the-go this year: just the front steps of the church, then the back entrance. We went out at the times when school lets out -- elementary on one side, HeadStart preschool on the other -- joining the multitude of vendors eking out a living at the end of the school day. Popsicles, ice cream, corn-on-the-cob, hot cheetos, gatorade, pan dulce, fresh mangoes...and ashes. It’s been a warm, dry winter in Los Angeles, and the sun beat down on our black cassocks with a vengeance.

I’m not all that interested in the controversies about ashes on the go, about whether getting ashes outside the context of a church service is the real thing or not. There was clearly something real happening as we encountered the neighborhood, pushing aside bangs from little foreheads, meeting upturned eyes, and declaring, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s quite the tongue twister in Spanish: “Recuerda que eres polvo, y al polvo volverás.”

I will let God and the neighbors sort out what was happening out there for them. What I know for sure is that imposing ashes outside the church walls every year changes me. It gives me a reason to be where the church belongs all the time, out among God’s people. It gives me a taste of what the church might be, set free from institutional norms and cultural expectations that limit our vision and circumscribe our work.

I’m not sure why it’s so hard to find ways to be out there with people. It’s partly, of course, that I’m often holed up in my office, working on administrative tasks, and pastoral care of those already in the church. It’s partly that I’m a bit of an introvert, shy about engaging strangers. But it’s more than that. Ashes give us something to offer -- something that seems far more concrete and accessible to our neighbors than our weekly Sunday services.

I came back inside convicted, aware of the movement of the spirit and the troubling of the waters. I began the long, slow task of unbuttoning my vintage cassock, determined to find new ways to engage the people of my neighborhood, who are clearly hungry for holy things, but not always for the ways we serve them up.