CHICAGO – Some Chicago-area churches plan to provide ashes mixed with glitter on Ash Wednesday as a sign of support for the LGBTQ community, a change to the religious ritual not all clergy have embraced.
On Wednesday, Berry United Methodist Church in Lincoln Square, Unity Lutheran Church in Edgewater and Holy Covenant Metropolitan Community Church in suburban Brookfield will offer the option of “glitter ashes” — traditional ashes mixed with purple glitter — to be placed in the sign of the cross on foreheads, marking the beginning of Lent for Christians. The “Glitter Ash Wednesday” initiative — led in part by Parity, a faith-based organization based in New York that’s focused on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community — aims to combine a traditional symbol of repentance with a message of solidarity.
“I think it’s really important for the church to respond to the intolerance and culture of fear that is being created especially toward LGBTQ people,” said April Gutierrez, pastor of Berry United Methodist, who said Ash Wednesday is a moment for believers to remember who they are called to be as Christians.
“We want to make sure the Christian message is one of love and inclusivity, of empowering people to be who they are.”
The Trump administration announced last week that it was rolling back federal protections for transgender students in public schools by rescinding a directive put in place by President Barack Obama that allowed transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room that matched their gender identity.
“Right now there are people in this country that feel threatened that their very presence should not be in public spaces. We are called to ensure that people know our Gospel teaches a gospel of love,” Gutierrez said. “Our visible sign should be a sign of solidarity of love and not one that excludes and condemns people.”
The church gets its traditional gray ashes, which are burned palm branches from the previous year’s Holy Week, from a church supplier, she said. This year, the church also placed an order for ashes mixed with purple glitter from Parity.
But some religious leaders think Ash Wednesday should remain glitter-free.
The somber occasion begins a 40-day period when Christians are asked to think about the central belief of their faith: the death and resurrection of Jesus, said the Rev. Donald Senior, president emeritus of the Catholic Theological Union based in Chicago. The ashes smudged on one’s forehead serve as a public mark of faith, unlike getting Communion or praying, which are more private practices, he said.
It would be unfortunate if the religious meaning of Ash Wednesday was lost, he said.
“If you start changing its meaning, some are going to feel this is a political statement,” Senior said. “Ash Wednesday is a long, long, long tradition, and the use of the ashes is a religious ritual. I think it should be dealt with a lot of respect.”
But Senior acknowledged that the intent of those choosing glitter ashes isn’t inappropriate.
“From one point of view, a person — no matter what their sexual orientation might be — they are human beings and deserving of respect,” he said. “So in one sense, recognizing that on this day to me is not offensive.”
The Rev. Fred Kinsey, pastor of Unity Lutheran, said he knew some people would not embrace the idea of mixing glitter with ashes.
“What I heard was people were just feeling that the ashes represent our mortality and our journey to the cross, that this is a mark of Christ’s death and resurrection and it should be all about God and Christ, and they were afraid that it would take away from that a little bit,” Kinsey said. “I think it is actually a way of adding on to that message already. I have no intention to take away from that message.”
The religious ritual delivers a message of hope and acceptance that can resonate with the LGBTQ community, which has faced anti-gay rhetoric and churches that were not welcoming, Kinsey said.
Ash Wednesday is “not just about death but also the possibility of hope and resurrection and new life for us,” he said. “It’s that sign of hope that we don’t despair even in hard times.”