NYC church gives ashes to and prays for people by name
Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church, a 150 year old congregation on 22nd Street in Manhattan, takes the Good News to over 1,000 people at street corners, parks, taverns, and people sitting in their cars at red lights on Ash Wednesday.
By: Zachary Dean
March 2, 2017
When a woman was standing there, clutching her bag, scared of what we might want from her, I knew the Church needed to be doing this.
There we were again on Ash Wednesday, standing in a busy Manhattan park offering ashes and prayer to a world in need. This year I was at Madison Square Park, under the canopy of tress with the smell of burgers and fries wafting from Shake Shack; in my white robe, sticking out like a sore thumb against the sea of secular clothing; looking strange, I’m sure, to many “unchurched” people. This liturgical world of acolytes and choirs that we live in, the world that we hold so dearly in our hearts — perhaps we take it for granted, and perhaps we are so insulated that when we do go out in our albs and stoles and chasubles and get funny looks or bewildering questions it shouldn’t be surprising to us that people question our motives.
One woman truly did clutch her bag and ask numerous times if we were going to charge her money after we prayed for her. She could not bring herself to believe that we were there to simply offer ashes and prayer — for free. Maybe it was her curiosity that changed her mind; maybe it was my insistence that we just cared about her and wanted to offer prayer; maybe it was the Holy Spirit pushing her towards me, only God knows, but by the end of the prayer she was weeping, clutching my arms, yet still in disbelief about our caring. The difference between that moment and five minutes before that moment was that she felt safe. We hugged, she thanked me, and she continued on her way. The Church needs to weep with people.
When a mother is concerned and uncertain about her son’s newly found love that spans an ocean, I knew the Church needed to be doing this.
At this point there was a line of people waiting. Although I wanted to spend a meaningful amount of time with each person, I also did not want to make the next person wait too long. This is a balance that I struggled with all day, yet when one woman told me a story about her son, who lives in Brazil and recently fell in love with a woman that lives in Serbia, I could tell she was struggling. Maybe I saw it in her eyes, maybe I heard it in her voice: here was a mother who earnestly wanted to be happy for her son, but was scared for what I’m sure she still saw as her little boy. And so we prayed: We prayed for her to know peace that no matter what happened, God holds her son with all of his emotion, and that is where his safety is. We prayed that both her son and his new love found patience in what we thought could become a difficult transition for one, or both, of them. We prayed that this mother have faith in the decisions made by her son, in an act that acknowledges her confidence in how she raised him. The Church needs to be strong with people.
When a man asks us if we have “sparkly glitter for gay people” and that he “guesses that we must be helping some people,” I knew the Church needed to be doing this.
The truth is we do not offer any special type of ashes for anyone. Everyone is reminded of their own mortality with the same ashes — gay, straight, black, white, male, female, transgender, scared, loving, hurting, healthy, sick, wounded, proud — all are welcome to ashes and prayer because all are created in God’s own image. I gained confidence when Andy walked up to me and asked me to pray for her and her fiancé, due to be married later this month. Upon me asking the name of her fiancé, she paused, looked at our sign, looked at me, and said “My fiancé’s name is Crystal. I see that you’re Lutheran so I figured you would get it.” I responded in prayer celebrating the love formed by God between her and Crystal, asking for a harmonious marriage, graced for many years by love not only between the two of them, but from family and friends as well. I did this despite the fact that even though I am a Lutheran, I still know many that struggle with the idea of same-sex marriage. Thankfully, the LGBTQ community is among the group of “some people” that we as Church are called to be there for. The Church needs to celebrate love in ways that more people can see.
When a hard working mother is seeking relief from her stress, I knew the Church needed to be doing this.
When a mother of a widow married six months ago asks to pray for her daughter, I knew the Church needed to be doing this.
When a brother of a cancer victim is scared for the life of his brother, I knew the Church needed to be doing this.
When a friend asks for a prayer of hope after burying Patrick, lost to multiple sclerosis two days before, I knew the Church needed to be doing this.
When a future doctor or nurse stands before me asking to pray for strength to get through their schooling, wondering if there is a need for them, I assure them that there is, knowing that the Church needed to be doing this.
When an immigrant asked to pray for peace in the world so that her family could feel safe, I knew that the Church needed to be doing this.
When a man asked to pray for peace and I told him “yes we can, that has been a big concern today,” and he replied “well then let’s pray for something else, what do you need prayers for?,” I knew that the Church needed to be doing this, because I needed it to be doing this.
I prayed for peace like he asked, then he prayed for me, we hugged, and it was good.
As someone discerning and beginning a path towards a new calling in the Church, I believe that the Church needs to give people a moment of silence in this busy, fast-paced, noisy world we live in; the Church needs to offer a word of hope for people; the Church needs to be a rock for people to lean on; the Church needs to speak about the gift of life through Jesus; the Church needs to encourage people; the Church needs to walk with people. We as Church need to not take it for granted, even with its committees, councils, and meetings that can sometimes be a drag. We need to love the Church with all of its flaws, as Jesus loves us with all of our flaws, as we are called to love the world and all those in it with all of their flaws, realizing that the gift of the Gospel is so powerful that to suffocate it between four walls and roof will not do us, nor the world, any good. This broken world needs us to share the Gospel, and more than just one day a year.
Zachary Dean serves as Minister of Music at Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church and is in the midst of applying to the Candidacy Process of the ELCA through the Metropolitan New York Synod. He is currently the President of the Student Council of Pinecrest Lutheran Leadership Ministries, the oldest continuously running outdoor ministry for youth in the nation. Zachary also serves on the Metropolitan New York Synod’s Strategic Planning Committee, under the umbrella of the Sent Committee, which seeks to network congregations, ministries, and leaders to proclaim the Gospel while responding to specific societal needs and issues.