On Ash Wednesday, a group of people from the South of Market Episcopal churches in San Francisco went to the Mission (a very busy, poor, mostly Latino neighborhood) to offer ashes at subway stops and on the streets. We served about 250 people in the morning and 300 in the evening. Here is a letter from Deb Tullman, one of the thurifers, and my notes from the evening service...if anyone else in the Diocese has photos, please post to this site. It was an incredible day.

from Deb Tullman:

"Hey, did you know today is Ash Wednesday?" a hipster spoke into his phone as 15 black cassocks passed him on 24th street a block from the BART station. We joined three Brazilian drummers, censed a makeshift altar, and read and prayed. People poured out of the station. Some stopped to take pictures and videos from their phones, some tried to redirect the crowd's attention, and then gradually (who did it first?) the moment of realization, or curiosity...or something...and people began to come forward. How many? It's hard to say. People stopped, stood on the fringes of the service, a circle formed. The kids couldn't keep their eyes off the thuribles' arc. Sara came over. "Want to come with me to Mission Pie and Dianda's restaurants?" We walked through litter and chaos and people knew what we were up to. Words seemed unnecessary in this moment of intense presence, when the fingers touch the temple and time stops over and over and over. A man ran up to Sara and they talked in Spanish as she smiled and gave him his ashes. He bolted back to his car (temporarily abandoned in the right lane, horns around him blaring), hopped back in and drove away. Dianda's bakery wanted ashes too; I half laughed and half cried as Sara reached around the huge cake in one woman's arms as she stretched her head closer and closer. Babies, thugs, teenagers, businessmen...it went on and on. I've been thinking. About what it felt like to swing a thurible in front of trash cans and storefronts. About secular and sacred practices of Lent and how the two bleed into each other. About something Sara said on our way back to the station..."I think people might want a lot more church than we give them."

from my notes:

We started around 4:30, deep gray sky. About 12 of us in black cassocks walked singing and censing and chanting for ten blocks until we had a brief liturgy at the plaza, prostrating ourselves on the sidewalk and blessing the ashes. There were 3 Brazilian drummers accompanying us, and we censed all around the circle of the subway station, stopping at the points of the cross and blessing the 4 directions with clouds of copal. Then returned to the homemade altar, set up on a card table draped in black....Bertie Pearson [a young priest in the diocese] had made signs, one saying LIFE IS VERY, VERY, VERY, VERY SHORT and another saying MORE FORGIVENESS, and duct-taped them to the fence. We were drumming and falling to our knees, rising and singing. Very non-sequential (as grace is).

The priests stayed, by habit, standing in front of the altar, waiting for people to come to them--which many people did, as they began to come up the escalator in the rush hour after work. But I wanted to peel out, and got a few of our group to walk up and down the nearby streets in our cassocks, men and women both, in pairs of thurifer and ashes, going out to offer ashes on the sidewalks. And then I started to go inside the stores. I just thought-- these people have been working all day, let's see if they want ashes. And in one taqueria, a guy said, "Oh...did you come because we couldn't get to church, so you came to us?"

Yes, we came to them. I want to remember that.

It was on the verge of a storm-- dark sky, a few raindrops. There was a moment when I was walking with Deb with her thurible along Mission, and I'd stopped to impose ashes on an older Filipina lady, and some big Chicano guy pulled up in a truck, put on his blinkers, and threw open the door -- "Oh! can I have those? Wait, my mom is in the back seat, can you go give her some?"

The amazing thing is that when you touch people's foreheads and tell them they are going to die, they inevitably say, "thank you."

Then I went into MacDonalds, where I went through the dining area with people pulling at my cassock and saying "por favor", and I gave ashes, in Spanish, to all the fry cooks, and some teenage girls. And a Guatemalan woman eating a hamburger unwrapped her week-and-a-half old baby and held him up to receive.

We touched the foreheads of commuters, and the gang kids on the corner, and little children, and a bunch of obnoxious drunks, and the librarian at the Mission Branch. The librarian said "Oh, I saw your sign that said forgive more. That's what I need in my life right now. I need to forgive more."

In Dianda's bakery, a baker holding a huge cake in her hands leaned over the counter to me and closed her eyes and said, "Please." I told her she was dust.

This thing is real.

Thanks be to God.

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Comment by Vincent Karl Schwahn Ryckman on March 3, 2009 at 10:42pm
FYI I am the Rector of Christ Church Parish in Mexico City. Our downtown church was the historic and first Anglican parish in Mexico and was nearly destroyed after the historic earthquake. It is now a center for culture and art and we have a community dedicated to St. Julian of Norwich which meets every Friday for Eucharist and lunch of people from the downtown center from all walks of life.
Comment by Vincent Karl Schwahn Ryckman on March 3, 2009 at 10:38pm
Congratulations in your Lenten stand. We did something similar this year for the second time in our historical church downtown which is in ruins and is being rebuilt as a museum and cultural center. I set up an outdoor stand right off the street in front of the church to give ashes to those who passed by. We gave ashes to some 400 people during the day and invited them to say a prayer at a makeshift altar outside before they received their ashes based on the prayers from the BCP. It was an energizing day, and my heartfelt moment was when a homeless and somewhat alcoholized and paralyzed, young man received ashes and left three pesos in the collection plate which was for him a widows mite and crippled away to return to his friends on the street. We are dust.....but we are dust together and that makes all the difference. Thanks be to God!

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