On this crisp, sunny afternoon, five members of Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church entered New York City's Union Square Park to offer ashes and prayer to anyone seeking God's blessing. Two stayed at the church to do the same.
When we arrived at the historic park it was busy with foot traffic. Our large sign, placed on an easel, read: "Ashes and Prayer." This Ash Wednesday, the park would become holy ground.
We were eager to get started and didn't have to wait long. A woman walked up excitedly and asked, "Are you really giving ashes right here in the street?" We anointed her and prayed. When finished, we looked up to see four people waiting in line. We divided into pairs. (Is there any other way to proclaim God's message?) We stood before them and told them our names, then asked for theirs and said, "What would you like to pray for? What can we lift up to God?"
The responses varied. Sick children were prayed for; financial fears were placed in God's hands. Their stories are now embedded in each of us: the 40-year-old woman who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer; Patrick, a victim of Hurricane Sandy, had been moving from shelter to shelter, yet he smiled through his tired eyes; Laura, scared and struggling through detox; the young woman who had left an abusive husband she had been forced to marry by her family; Carol, who has been out of work for two years and just spent her last $20 on a small bag of groceries. Together we prayed and cried.
For two hours they arrived, grateful that we were there. They craved compassion, God's holy touch, God's promise and mercy. Where else can one be told at the same time that "you are dust" and "you are deeply loved by God"?
The sun dipped behind the clouds, our hands grew numb and the ashes hardened. On our way back to church we were stopped on Park Avenue: "Can I have ashes?" So amid the noise of the city, the sirens, honking cabs and people talking on their cellphones, we prayed and imposed the ashes for Benjamin.
Two left us to anoint the owner of a pub who was working and couldn't get away. At the end of the bar, they engaged in conversation and confession, prayer and ashes. Tears rolled down his face. When they looked up after the prayer, a line of patrons had formed seeking the same.
By the end of this blessed day, our small church had anointed and prayed for more than 350 people. In the church, at the town square, on the street, and even in a local pub, seven of us offered the light and love of Christ to all. We prayed with Christians, Muslims and Buddhists. We felt God's power among us and through us, bringing healing, hope and possibility.
As one of our team members came up from the subway in Brooklyn on his way home, he ran into a neighbor who spotted his forehead. Pointing to the ashes, the neighbor asked, "How do I get me some of that?" So he wiped ashes from his own forehead and anointed his neighbor.
This is the church at work. God loose in the world!
© 2013 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers