Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Ashes and prayer in Union Square

February 25, 2013 09:04 AM

By Paul Miller


On Ash Wednesday, five of us from Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church in Manhattan walked to Union Square to offer ashes and prayer for anyone seeking the blessing of God. As we headed toward Lexington Avenue, we got a few inquisitive looks. A woman nearly gasped at the sight of us walking down the street in robes and stoles. We stood on the northeast corner of Union Square and placed a large sign reading "Ashes and Prayer" on an easel. It was market day and the park was busy with foot traffic.


Curious and even anxious, we wondered if anyone would come over. Would anyone want ashes in the park from complete strangers? We didn’t have to wait long for our answer. Almost instantly, a woman walked up. She was thrilled. "Are you really giving ashes right here in the street?" She went on to tell her story, along with her fears and hopes. Pastor Chris Mietlowski anointed her and we prayed. As we looked up from our prayer, there were three or four people already waiting in line.


We divided into pairs, standing two by two. People came and stood before us. They asked hungering questions:


"Is it okay to get ashes I am not Catholic?"




"Can I get them right here on the street?"


"Of course you can."


"Can we just pray?"




"Is it okay to get ashes if I am Catholic?"


"Please step forward."


"Where is your church and how do I get there?"


That’s when we would say, "You are here right now."


Unionsquare1We would tell them our names, ask for theirs, and inquire, "What would you like to pray for? What can we lift up to God?" The responses would vary. People visiting New York wanted to return home safely. Some prayed for sick children. Others asked to put financial fears in God’s hands. One woman holding a shopping bag had been out of work for two years. She had just spent her last $20 on groceries.


Their stories are now embedded in each of us. I think about the woman in her early 40s telling us that she was diagnosed with breast cancer last week. I think about Patrick, a young man from Staten Island who has been homeless since Hurricane Sandy, living in shelter after shelter, never for more than a few days at time. He still had a smile on his face, even though the look in his eyes was tired. I think about the young Muslim woman who had left her abusive husband. I think about Laura, telling us how she was detoxing and was scared and struggling. For some, it had been a long time since they had prayed.


People wanted the ashes. They were craving God’s holy touch, the care, the compassion of another person, the promise and mercy of God. Where else can one be told at the same time that "you are dust" and that "you are deeply loved by God?"


The sun dipped behind the clouds and the chill started taking its toll. Eventually we began our walk back to the church. We were stopped along Park Avenue by the request, "Can I have ashes?" "Yes you can." One team went on to a local pub. The owner had asked them to come because he was working and couldn’t get away. After he was marked with ashes and prayed for in the back of the tavern, a line of other patrons had formed. They too wanted ashes and prayer.


By the end of the day, a little church in New York City had anointed and prayed for more than 350 people. In the church and at the town square. On the street. Even in a local pub. This is the church at work: God loose in the world!




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