One member of our group stayed in his civilian clothes. He planned to “work the park” by letting people know we were here, offering ashes and prayer. He planned to hand out flyers, inviting the homeless and hungry to a meal offered at the church on February 24th. He also planned to distribute the church’s brochures, inviting all to worship services.
As we crossed the streets, we felt a few more odd looks from passersby, but this is New York, most kept their head down and did not make eye contact.
We arrived at Union Square Park, at the very point where Broadway and the former Bowery Road meet. This park, which was formed in 1815, has a great deal of social and political history. In 1861, shortly after shots were fired on Fort Sumter, over a thousand gathered in support of the Union. Throughout the years, labor rallies and political rallies have also been held on the park’s grounds. More recently, in the aftermath of 9/11, it became the scene for a make-shift vigil and gathering place for those terrible few weeks following the attacks. This Ash Wednesday, it would be holy ground.
The park was quiet. We stood on the northeast corner and on an easel, placed our large sign, which read, “Ashes and Prayer.” We faced the pavilion, that’s currently under construction. To our back was the New York Film Academy. To our right stood a row of shops, including the most prominent, Barnes & Noble. It was market day and down the line were fruit stands and meat venders. A display teaching people how to properly compost was probably 100 feet away. On this day, the park was busy with foot traffic. We were truly among the people.
Curious and even anxious, we wondered if any- one would come over. Would anyone want ashes and prayer in the park from complete strangers? We didn’t have to wait long for our answer. Almost instantly, a woman walked up. She was thrilled. “Are you really giving ashes right here in the street?” Her excitement was palpable. Her name was Luann, but she went by the nickname “Lulu.” She could not believe one of the deacons in our midst was also a Lulu. She went on to tell her story along with her fears and her hopes. And then, she finally was ready for her ashes. Pastor Chris anointed her and we prayed. She left happy and fulfilled. As we looked up from our prayer, there were three or four people already waiting in line.
We divided into pairs, standing two by two. (Is there any other way to proclaim God’s message?) The people came and stood before us. They asked questions and were hungering.
“Is it ok to get ashes I am not Catholic?”
Our reply, “Absolutely."
“Can I get them right here on the street?”
Our response, “Of course, you can.”
“Can we just pray?”
To that, we’d simply answer “Yes.”
“Is it ok to get ashes I am Catholic?”
We’d answer, “Please step forward.”
“Where is your church and how do I get there?”
That’s when we would say, “You are here right now.”
We would stand before them, tell them our names, ask for theirs, and then ask, “What would you like to pray for? What can we lift up to God?”
The responses would vary. People visiting New York wanted to return home safely or as one gentle spirit asked, “pray for my mom who is in heaven and would like that I am getting ashes.” Sick children were prayed for. Financial fears were asked to be put in God’s hands. One woman who had been out of work for two years was holding a shopping bag. She just spent her last $20 on groceries.
“It was incredibly special and important to have so many strong lay people excited to serve, willing to take their faith public. If our neighbors couldn’t get to church, the church would get to them!” Pastor Chris.
Their stories are now imbedded in each of us. I think about the woman in her early 40s telling us that she was diagnosed with breast cancer last week. I think about Patrick, a young man from Staten Island whose has been homeless since Hurricane Sandy. He has been living in shelter after shelter, never more than a few days at time. He still had a smile on his face even though the look in his eyes was tired. I think about Laura, telling us how she was detoxing and was scared and struggling. And we could tell Laura that we too have walked in her shoes and know what it is to fight the demons of addiction.
For two hours they steadily came, so many grateful that we were there. They wanted to go to church to get ashes, but just didn’t know where to go. For some, it had been a long time since they had been in church or prayed.
We taught them as well. Questions were answered about the purpose of Lent and the meaning of the ashes. Some learned and were excited that women could be pastors in the Lutheran tradition.
I think about the young woman who told us she was Muslim and had been forced by her family to marry a man. She was moved from her native country and her husband turned out to be abusive. She left him for fear of her safety, and I do not know where she was living. But she asked if we could pray. And we did. And she cried. And we cried.
People wanted the ashes. They were craving God’s holy touch, the care, the compassion of an- other person, the promise and mercy of God. Where else can one be told at the same time that “you are dust” and that “you are deeply loved by God?”
The sun dipped behind the clouds and the chill started taking its toll. Our hands grew numb. The ashes hardened. We had to return for a church service at 6:30. As we were packing up our sign, more came. We weren’t done yet.
Eventually we began our walk back to the church along Park Avenue when we were stopped on the street by a request, “Can I have ashes?”
“Yes you can.” So right there, on the corner of 18th and Park, we prayed amidst the noise of the city, the loud sirens, honking cabs, and people talking on their cell phones as they passed. God will not be kept in a box. God is loose in the world.
We returned to the church to thaw a bit. One team went on to meet the owner of a local pub. He asked a GA member to come with ashes because he was working and couldn’t get away. A team of two walked into the bar and met with the owner. There was tender conversation and confession. At the end of the bar towards the back of the tavern, this person, this child of God, was marked with ashes and prayed for. Tears rolled down his face. When the team looked up after the prayer, a line of other patrons had formed. They too, wanted their ashes and prayer.
By the end of this long, exhausting, yet exhilarating day, a little church in New York City had anointed and prayed for more than 350 people. In the church and at the town square. On the street. Even in a local pub. Seven of us (only one ordained) offering the light and love of Christ to all.
We prayed with Christians from numerous denominations, Muslims, and Buddhists. We felt the power of God among us and through us, bringing healing, hope, and possibility.
We saw that people are hungering for something far greater than themselves and what this world can offer.
One last encounter. As a lay member from this team was returning home late in the day, he came up from the subway in Brooklyn and ran into a neighbor. The neighbor spotted his forehead and pointing to the ashes, he asked, “How do I get me some of that?”
This disciple of Jesus immediately scrapped off the ashes from his own forehead and anointed his neighbor.
This is the church at work. God loose in the world!