Saturday, February 25, 2012

Liturgy on the Streets

By Rev. Elizabeth M. Magill 

     In her blog Telling Secrets Elizabeth Kaeton looks at the “Ashes to Go Movement” and asks an important question: What does it mean when we take liturgical actions to the streets?
     Is it worth the risk that the action will be separated from its meaning—not just from its immediate meaning, but from the bigger story that surrounds it? Is it worth the risk that people will accept ashes and yet not understand the meaning behind the words “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Or, even if they do understand, that they will not have heard the bigger story of Christian salvation, will not get a handle on how Ash Wednesday is a small part of the Good News of Kingdom of God. Is it worth the risk that someone will see it is as magic symbol of something trite?
     Elizabeth’s question is one of the right questions. She decides that she will take her ashes “to stay,” that she will be part of the whole liturgy, that she will experience that liturgy with the community where she is an integral part. Shes not getting ashes and moving on, she’s getting ashes and being sent out by a community.
     This leads to another right question: what do we, as active Christians, take with us when we are sent out by our worshiping community?
     Certainly it begins with our love, patience, and kindness. Certainly we take our community organizing knowledge, our passion for justice, and our love of our neighbor.
     But cant we also take our palms and our oil and our ashes? Our bread and our drink and our baptismal waters? Can't we take these out with us into the world?
     I know that these things may communicate less outside the context of the place that we worship. These things are only signs of something bigger, deeper, more powerful, and more wonderful. All of the gifts that we bring to the world are not fully understood in the world, nor, I must add, are the fully understood by any of us. 
     However, in fairness to the conversation, I offer the following experiences I have had working with Worcester Fellowship, an outdoor church offering worship to homeless and at risk adults. We offered a quick Ash Wednesday service followed by an hour hanging out, offering ashes to people walking through Worcester Common.
     First, there was the woman in Worcester Common who turned to me and said “Ashes? I haven't had ashes since I was a kid.” She then shared stories of her life since the last time she’d been to church, how the church had hurt her, and how she was now thinking about God again for the first time in a long time. When I put ashes on her, she understood what was happening in that ritual as well any other person receiving ashes inside or outside.
     Then, there was the young man who said, “No, thanks” when I first offered ashes but then came back and said, “Can I change my mind?” He told the story of the fight he’d had last night and how he was ruminating about that when I offered ashes. He realized that he has to “get right with God” if he thinks he is going to “get right with his girlfriend.” He understood enough to accept ashes without going inside.
     And there was the older woman who said nothing, but cried. Then she asked for a hug.
     And then the people who said yes, and accepted ashes with a quiet amen. And the people who simply took off their hats and said nothing. I dont know what they understood.
     I am glad I accepted the gifts the church community gives to me, and that I took the risk to take those gifts with me, outside. Perhaps the value of taking the gifts of the church outside its walls is the gift the giver receives from the people in the world.

The Rev. Elizabeth M. Magill (EDS ’02) is called “Pastor Liz” on the streets of Worcester where she offers lunch, worship, and pastoral care every Sunday at 1pm. Her blog is


  1. Amen to taking liturgy to the streets!

  2. Beautiful and powerful. Thank you for doing this work.

  3. Amen to listening to all sides and living out our commitment to diversity and inclusion in all of its forms - even when we disagree.

  4. AMEN! Thank you, good and faithful servant.

  5. In 35 years of making the sign of the cross with ashes in church, I asked people to come forward at the end of the Service. Last year, I also went in cassock and stole to the sidewalk at the entrance to the Jubilee Center where about 80 people were in line for the daily free hot meal and offered ashes to all as they passed by. Maybe five accepted. This year I went in the Jubilee Center dining room wearing cassock and stole. After several people had received the ashes including two Jubilee volunteer servers, people slowly began coming to me for ashes; not five but at least 20 and many conversations.

    Reflecting on these experiences, I think that being outside is not the issue, it is the temporary stability of place and gathering that allows time for people to remember and to choose.
    Next year, I may be outside but not to offer ashes to people walking by. I will be where people gather and I will hang around to welcome any who remember, who choose to acknowledge their connection with God with the sign of the cross in ashes.
    The Rev. Dr. Steve Crowson, Trinity Episcopal Church, Lewiston Maine.

  6. Thank you, Liz, for your witness, and for sharing these stories.
    We've been taking ashes out to people on the street, in fast-food restaurants, in bars and beauty parlors in San Francisco's Mission for the last three years. There are some recurring responses: "thank you" is almost universal, and many cooks and people working long hours are just grateful that they were remembered by the church, and say "You came to us because you knew we couldn't come to you today." And yes, sometimes it's perfunctory-- just as it can be perfunctory for people in a church congregation.
    But there are always amazing, surprising moments: both long conversations and brief, heartfelt exchanges. One woman, after receiving, asked me to pray for the man who had beaten her. "I needed those ashes," she said. "Because now I need to forgive more."

  7. Wasn't it Jesus that did most of his teaching outside, mainly because that is where the people were and he also knew the priests wouldn't "get it". I love the fact that church can be celebrated outside by those that may or may not be willing to go inside. Their reasons are too numerous to mention but feeling unwelcome, past transgressions, racism, unacceptance are just a few that might keep one from going inside. Wherever people are willing to accept Christ and the tenets that he stood for seems OK to me. Wherever we can spread his Good Word seems OK to me. Wherever people can recieve the grace and love of God seems OK to me. And what exactly is the risk of taking Christ to the streets?
    They were his home too.

  8. While I agree that it is right to take the liturgy to the streets, I also agree with Elizabeth Kaeton's point that there is a real risk. The risk is that people will think the action IS the church, and will miss the importance of being part of community.

    I'm willing to take the risk, but not willing to say there is no risk, if that makes sense? (Liz Magill)

    1. Now I understand, thank you, Liz. I'm still glad you are willing to take it to the streets as I feel there is a tremendous need. Again, thank you for your devotion and compassion.

  9. The first time you shared this idea, Liz, I felt myself reverberate with one of those "aha" moments. I wondered why I had never thought of going out publicly on Ash Wednesday. We tried to do a market square service a year ago, but it got rained out. But even that wasn't going out to people walking down the street, or going into businesses where people have to work and cannot get to church. The church IS so much bigger than a building, our parishioners are discovering over and over. And now, their priest needs to begin to embody that!