Ash Wednesday started early as the morning had not yet broken over the horizon. I stopped at Starbucks for a gallon of coffee. I traveled through the empty downtown streets of both Dallas and Irving; headed to First United Methodist Church of Irving to offer a ministry called “Ashes to Go”.
Waiting for me, as I arrived shortly before 6:00 a.m., were Shardel Brock and her truck. It was parked outside and needed to be loaded with tables and supplies. After mixing the ashes and loading the truck, we were ready to head over to the South Irving Transit Station; a two blocks over and directly in front of the church. As we headed out the door, Paula, the church’s building attendant, asked if she could be the first to receive this mark of humility.
Others begin to arrive, Cynthia Stone, Earnestine Overland, Theresa Bowers, and Debby Werle to name a few. They help complete the set-up in the dark on a sidewalk where people loaded and unloaded. We waited expectantly and somewhat nervously wondering what was next.
We began by wishing a few persons good morning as they passed by our two tables. We would offer water or coffee to those within reach of our voice. Most people passed by us quickly with sometimes nothing more than a nod. Occasionally, a person would come to the tables; receive our hospitality, but a bit reluctant about the ashes.
She may have not been the first, but she broke the ice when a young woman came running off the train to catch her bus to the next connection. Loudly she screamed, “I need ashes!” Ashes were applied and a blessing was spoken. She ran to catch her bus, marked by a sign of mortality; but assured God’s grace was sufficient. “Ashes to Go” was off and running.
I think the woman’s energy, energized the volunteers. Each one of them asked if I would bless them and apply the sign of the day on their forehead. The pace of the morning picked up as our freshly adorned servants became bolder in their kindness. They offered bottles of water, which had been donated by many people. These bottles were labeled with “Living Water offered by First United Methodist Church,”Irving, thanks to Gary and Bonnie Jones by providing the labels.
Around 7:00 a.m., the sun began to rise. Theresa Bowers was now setting the pace; going up and down the sidewalks, offering morning refreshment to all. More people begin to gather around the table. We would share with them that today was Ash Wednesday and hand them some information about the meaning of the day. By this time of the morning, Cheryl Jennings had dropped off eight dozen donuts, which were crowd pleasers to the hungry commuters.
Every few moments, a person would slide over beside me to receive the holy sign and often converse in holy conversation. My message was consistent, even to the young man whose mind was easily distracted. He asked me how to pray. I shared with him the same message I shared with all: No matter how susceptible you may feel or how difficult life may seem, the grace of God is never beyond your reach. He took with him a bible Debby Werle had provided; clutching tightly as he busily ran away.
A moment of anxiety arose, about mid morning, when a man dressed in Dart uniform approached and exclaimed I was the man he was looking for! I apprehensively asked him what I could do for him. He blurted out, “Ashes! I need ashes!” He became the catalyst for the other Dart employees who began to make their way over to our table during their morning break. A few of them asked for the imposition of ashes. One man said, “I get up so early and go to be so early, I cannot go to services tonight, thank you for making this possible”. One Dart bus driver stopped his bus at the curb and made his passengers wait while I stuck my head in his bus to offer him ashes on his forehead. A volunteer handed him a cup of coffee before he drove away.
As I looked around our volunteers were in constant conversations with whoever would receive our hospitality. Our base of willing servants had grown as Sue Wilson and Carol English would arrive. Persons who came by the tables surprisingly and openly shared their blessings and struggles to these lay ministers of First Methodist. Persons who were church volunteers when they awoke this morning, became trumpets of God’s love as they confidently spoke of Christ’s ability to provide what any person may need.
Two persons, who were initially reluctant, would come over to the table after observing for more than twenty minutes. One of them asked for a drink and the other person desired to receive ashes. One lady drove by slowly and then backed up. She inquired from her open passenger side window if this was “Ashes to Go”. I don’t know how she knew because I don’t think she could see our signs. I stuck my head in the VW bug, put the mark of the day on her head, and blessed her as she drove away. People came by from every station in life, all of them knowing they were in need of some form of grace.
The defining moment of the morning was at the end of our time at the Transit Center. Sammy had arrived to help load up the table and supplies. He and I looked around and there were three ministry conversations going on without help of clergy. We could not hear what was being said; but it was obvious tender conversations were taking place. The people of FUMC were addressing real needs of real people. These street corner ministers had all the help they needed, the faithful presence of the Spirit of God.
“Ashes to Go” is more than slogan; it is way to make real the presence of the Living God among children of God who need a graceful and healing touch. In fact, it is nearly time to go back to the Transit Center for the afternoon. This sure doesn’t feel like work!