So, I did it again. Ashes in small bowl, purple stole, black clerical shirt, down to the boardwalk. Placing my heels on the first grains of the sand of the Pacific, I stand. I wait. This goes on for a while.
As I stand, I notice the range of responses that passers-by have. The most common reaction is the non-reaction. Most people walk by, say nothing, don’t look my way at all. After all, this is Pacific Beach, and people do weird things all the time, so much so that you can stand out here if you aren’t making a scene of yourself.
The second category of passer-by is the ‘sniggerer’. Some sneak a sideways look, others nudge one another and grin. This group often contains a sub-group of ‘double-takers’, just to ensure that what their brain is telling them they have just seen is actually what they have just seen.
So, I stand there, and wonder to myself, ‘is this street theology?’ an embodied evangelism minus the soapbox and loud haler? As I ponder the nature of what exactly I am up to, I notice the third category of passer-by: the one who stops. They are few, it must be said, but their diversity of responses is fascinating.
‘You getting many customers?’ one man asks. He’s one of those who stop to ask a question. Another asks what the ashes stand for, another why Ash Wednesday is today and not another day. My favorite of this group of question-askers is the elderly Italian woman on a bike who comes abruptly to a halt to ask,
‘Episcopal’, comes the reply, and she rides on, arguing with her husband in Italian.
With all of this are the family dynamics that get revealed as people choose to engage the religious-looking person a little out of place at the beach. One woman brings her mother to be ‘ashed’, another commands his wife to have their children have ashes imposed – ‘they have to do it!’ – despite the mother’s protest (they end up moving on, with only the dad receiving ashes). ‘This is church’, he retorts, prophetically.
Lots to to think about in the course of an hour. Nice weather too. But what was it all for? Was it art, as the young man who asked to take my picture on his i-Phone, ‘It’s pure art, man, and you don’t know it’. Is that the life of the Church in today’s society, a relic of an art form, a beach walk show? Or is it about being recognized, ‘being visible’ as churches like to say? As I made my way back to the church at the end of my time on the boardwalk, a young man in shirt and tie says to me as he passes, ‘People treat you differently when you’re all dressed up’. Is that it? Is this about being treated to a different kind of conversation than normal? Do church symbol and ritual action allow us to speak to one another in different ways than we might otherwise?
Perhaps the Church in our world is all of the above: a spectacle, something to ignore, something to joke about, a space to ask questions, a space for family and other relationships to get played out within a narrative of the divine-human relationship, a vehicle for symbol and art, a way for us to have a different kind of conversation with one another. In the end, the Jehovah’s Witness who cycled by and stopped for a chat had it down to one concise insight: ‘people think that we are trying to convert everyone, we just want them to make a connection to God’. This is the age of connections after all, the networked age. Maybe I should come down here more often.