By Rev. Paul Ortiz
This past Ash Wednesday, a group of long-time members and new folks from University Temple United Methodist Church joined me to offer ashes and blessings to morning commuters outside of Seattle’s U District Light Rail Station. Our public witness is essential to us, especially as we will soon identify as University Gathering UMC starting on Easter Sunday, 2022. This new identity flows from the church’s decision to redevelop an expensive to maintain but beloved building. When the new facility is completed, it will be more of a community hub.
Holding a sign that proclaimed, “Ashes for All,” our group waved and wished folks passing by “good morning” and asked, “Would you like to receive a blessing and ashes for Ash Wednesday?” Some people ignored us, some told us they were not Catholic, and some stopped to receive.
One by one, we placed ashes on their foreheads and blessed them, saying, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return—in the frailty of life, God loves you!” The first person to receive was so moved that she offered to hug and thank us. And while we assumed that most people who stopped by had some former involvement with or knowledge of Christianity and Lent, one person did not. He asked us many questions and decided to receive the imposition of ashes for the first time. We handed each person a flyer for our church, inviting them to stay connected.
Offering ashes on the street with teams of lay people is one of my all-time favorite pastoral “tasks” I get to share in each year. I know that there are some fellow clergy – good, super-smart, faithful people, including my former United Methodist Worship professor – who feel that practicing Ash Wednesday in such a fashion is liturgically and/or theologically incomplete, and that’s a fair critique. But in an age when many churches (and, perhaps, particularly “progressive” churches) suffer from an epidemic reluctance to public/verbal discipleship and evangelism, I think it’s worth risking “liturgical incorrectness” for the chance to meet people right where they are to remind them/us that we are all at once bearers of the image of God and frail humans in need of grace.
At the U District Light Rail Station, on the sidewalk, in front of a coffee shop: that hopeful truth is no less true in that space than it is in a sanctuary. Perhaps it is even more true amid public invitation and bold communal witness.
Rev. Paul Ortiz serves as pastor of University Temple United Methodist Church in Seattle, Washington.