Lenten Reflection: Bringing “church” to the public square in New York City
The Rev. Christopher Mietlowski, MDiv ’94
A young woman emerged from the Union Square subway station and spotted our large sign: “Ashes and Prayer.” Dressed in an expensive looking coat and scarf, walking with purpose and confidence, it seemed like she had it all together. She came over to us and asked, “Really? Can I get ashes right here and now?” I said, “Yes. And we would also like to pray for you.” We exchanged first names. Then I asked what we could lift to God in prayer on her behalf. Her face dramatically changed expression as she bowed her head toward the ground and quietly said, “I’m flying home tomorrow … to bury my younger sister.” Tears came. Her hidden pain revealed. At that very moment, in the heart of a bustling Manhattan park, a couple of folks from our congregation surrounded her, imposed ashes on her forehead in the shape of a cross, retracing her baptismal mark. We tenderly placed our hands on her shoulders and through prayer, lifted this beloved child of God and her grieving family to God.
This experience was repeated hundreds and hundreds of times on Ash Wednesday. We met person after person– so many carrying heavy burdens, grave fears, and overwhelming hardships. Medical issues. Financial concerns. Troubled relationships. Addictions. Worries about young children or elderly parents. Employment struggles. Losses and anguish of all kinds. It was clear that many are “walking weary.”
For the third year in a row, on a bitterly cold day this February, a group from Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church in New York City put on long white robes over the top of multiple layers of coats, sweaters, and scarves to bring the love of Christ into the public square. These disciples brought God’s holy love, precious promises, and holy care into the daily routines of our neighbors. Several teams were positioned around Union Square. Another team was set up in Madison Square Park by the Flat Iron Building. A third team remained back at the church for those who came into the church building seeking ashes and prayer. A special blessing for our group of 15 people included the Rev. Louise Johnson and Matthew O’Rear, staff members from The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP), who traveled from Philadelphia to join us for this remarkable day of tender outreach in the community. We were stopped by pedestrians as we walked on the streets, and we were invited into retail stores and taverns to provide this ashen mark of truth, love, and hope to everyone longing for a connection with the holy.
One woman who attended the noon Ash Wednesday service, her first time in any church in many years, experienced such a transformative touch of God in word, prayer, and meal – and learning about our plans to take ashes into the parks, went back to work and told her employer she was taking the afternoon off. She went home to dress in much warmer clothing and joined one of our teams in the park to help distribute ashes and to pray with others. She is now a “Sunday regular” with new found koinonia.
Embraced by God’s holy, redeeming love … inspired by the Spirit, we were sent to bear witness to others … that God is indeed very near … and truly cares. Not only were we ambassadors for Christ, “bringing church” into the public square, we also became stronger as “church.” I received an email later that evening from a Gustavus Adolphus member who was reluctant to participate but eventually did: “… Thank you for encouraging me to impose ashes in the park. It was a wonderful experience. This is a comment from a lady to my team at Madison Square Park: ‘Wow, you ladies are brave. With all we hear about Christians beheaded because of their faith and you are out here giving ashes. I would not do it but I am grateful you are here.’” This comment meant more to me because the people who were beheaded were Christian Egyptians and I am a Christian Egyptian.”
“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news!” (Romans 10:15)
The Rev. Christopher Mietlowski, MDiv ’94 is pastor of Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church, 155 East 22nd Street, New York, NY
photo of Pr. Mietlowski courtesy Matt O’Rear; photo of Ashes in the Park from Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church via Instagram