On most early mornings I smell cigarette smoke in my bedroom. I smell it not because I smoke or that anyone in the rectory smokes. The hint of cigarettes slowly drifts into my third-story room from the line of people forming below my window. People line up every weekday morning at our urban parish to enter our hospitality center seeking the basics of life. The queue forms in rain or shine, in good economic times or bad, in every liturgical season.
The row of friends and strangers becomes a profound presence of prayer for me even before our hospitality center opens. Low-income neighbors come very early because they have to make decisions about how to spend their day. A young man living outside needs clothing; a single mother wants a laundry voucher so they both wait in our line. A man seeking a job interview steps into a row at another service center to perhaps get one of the few showers available for that day. A stranger in town waits in a different line to get a new identification card because all his belongings were stolen during the night.
Every morning I acknowledge my own lack of patience waiting in lines. I grow angry when I have to wait at a grocery store check-out counter. I feel offended when I have to wait in a restaurant to use a restroom. I have no patience waiting in line to fill my car with gasoline. Every morning in my room and office, the smell of cigarettes and echoes of conversations from below my window remind me of my own stubbornness, small-mindedness and lack of patience.
One of the major differences between when I wait in line and when my friends wait in line is that I will eventually get what I need. I will fill up my car with gas, pay for my groceries and be able to use the restroom in a restaurant. There is no guarantee that people below my window, no matter which line they stand in, will ever get what they need. Our parish can afford only so many laundry vouchers per day, only so many resources for clothing. Our one volunteer can only cut hair of a limited number of people on Wednesdays.
The queue under my window offers a profound reflection especially during the Lenten season. We begin this forty-day retreat with varieties of people in all parishes waiting in line. A cultural mix of people stand in the same procession waiting to be touched, to be given the ash-mark, the sign of the Crucified.
There are as many reasons for coming to Mass on Ash Wednesday as there are people. An immigrant family wants their foreheads to be smeared with ashes because they cling to traditions from the old country. A poor, elderly man believes that if he does not get ashes and dies during the year, he will not go to heaven. An exhausted business man strains to connect again with his childhood. Some gay members feel they can only be part of the sinful fringe of the Church. A neglectful mother feels genuine guilt. An unemployed couple has grown scrupulous and Ash Wednesday continues to make them feel unworthy. For some people suffering abuse, Ash Wednesday is one of the only days a year that they are physically touched in a positive way. Some believers want to keep all the rules, some want to be reminded they are still sinners. Most people want to be found in the love that God has for them.
No matter the reasons we all wait in line to be marked with the Sign of the Cross, every parish must welcome every person. No parish assembly can take for granted that people ache for new life and the security of belonging in the Church. We must not judge people whose reasons for being in the Church seem out of place, too liberal, too conservative or not authentic. We cannot judge folks who come to our parishes only once a year just to receive ashes. We must not shun people who sneak in the doors after Mass on Ash Wednesday and want someone to mark their foreheads.
The queue for the sacred ash mark should remind all ministers that we accept people struggling with mental health, regretful pasts, overwhelming poverty, infidelity, and insincerity. The line dancing down the aisles of our churches to begin the Lenten season teaches us that people have made real decisions to be there, to show up once again to be claimed by Christ’s death and resurrection within the Church.
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.