Tuesday, March 11, 2014

“You need to leave Metro property”: An Ash Wednesday lesson in humility and empathy

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them? Isaiah 58:7

On Ash Wednesday, like many other participants around diocese, the Reverend Megan Dembi and I went out to deliver Ashes to Go. Leaving St. Luke’s, Bethesda and following a successful morning shift, we were excited about bringing ashes to rush hour commuters.

Our plan didn’t seem to have many moving parts. We figured, if we had ashes and a place to distribute them, what could go wrong? But, our stumbling block would appear shortly after we arrived at the Grosvenor Metro station in the form of a police van. I had a sinking feeling that the officer was coming to speak with us.
Sure enough, a hulking officer made a beeline towards us and said that we were breaking the law by conducting religious services on Metro property. We politely asked him if there was a place where we could lawfully distribute ashes near the property. He simply said “no.” He stayed in audible radio contact with backup units, reporting that the “priest and the nun” appear to be willing to exit. Still stunned, we did not linger to correct him about the fact that we were deacons and we left for the parking lot. A man who overheard the exchange followed us and asked if we could give him ashes off Metro property, which we did.

The subsequent reaction of colleagues and parishioners was both interesting and all over the map. Some found the Metro incident amusing and funny to no end. There was a good natured dose of teasing about whether I liked my new orange “uniform”, while others quipped that they were “probably” willing to bail us out. At the same time, a number of people expressed a sense that we were treated appropriately since we didn’t have a permit. Still, others seemed upset over our treatment and voiced concern over the absence of the church in the public square. Finally, there was a colleague who strongly insisted that we should have resisted even if it resulted in our arrest.

In the immediate aftermath, I felt a sense of humiliation after being run off the Metro property. Seemingly, all the other Ashes to Go participants reported great success in distributing ashes and in connecting with the public. Some teams were even welcomed warmly and offered coffee by Metro staff at their location. The jokes, concern and advice offered to me only served to heighten the distance between the experience of others and my own.

Yet, upon deeper reflection, I have come to see the unexpected turn in my Ashes to Go experience to be a blessing. It dawned on me that this encounter was merely a small taste of what it is like to not be welcome in public or, for that matter, in private spaces. I was reminded of all those who struggle to find a safe and dignified place to sleep and to take care of essential personal needs. I remembered that there are many who encounter constant rejection at every turn and who know that it is a certainty that they will be asked to leave, wherever they go. I also thought of all the faithful who bring people out of the brutal winter cold into the haven of a warm bed and shelter. 

In the midst of the grit and ash of this world, the prophet Isaiah calls us forth to meet and comfort the hungry and the homeless. These are the very same sisters and brothers whom Jesus would call most blessed among us. This Ash Wednesday, in that brief and unpleasant encounter in a frigid corner of a Metro station, I was reminded to turn towards and to embrace those who live precariously on the fringes of society. So, in an unexpected and roundabout way, this Ash Wednesday was what it was supposed to be—a palpable reminder of our shared humanity as God’s beloved and a call to love our neighbor without exception.

George Wong is a resident transitional deacon at St. Luke's, Bethesda and Virginia Theological Seminary senior