Having ashes on her forehead on Ash Wednesday is nothing new for Amy Fox, a Lutheran who lives in Hastings.
But this year, she marked the usually solemn first day of Lent a little differently.
The cross on her forehead was drawn by an Episcopal priest on the sidewalk outside Geek Haven Coffee downtown. Mixed into the traditional ashes was a sparkly purple glitter, designed to symbolize support for the LGBTQ faithful.
"I love it," Fox said.
She took part in an "ashes-to-go" outdoor Glitter Ash Wednesday ministry hosted by a small group of Hastings clergy. The clergy members wanted to publicly show that their churches — and their city — could be welcoming to LGBTQ residents, especially after a local Facebook group outed former school board chair Kelsey Waits' child as transgender last year. The upheaval that followed led the Waits family to leave the city of 22,000, and cast the river town's divisions in the national spotlight.
Fox's sister-in-law, Hastings City Council Member Jen Fox, also decided to get glittery ashes on her forehead, even though she doesn't usually go to church.
"I love that this is in solidarity with the LGBTQ community," Jen Fox said. "That's something I can be blessed by."
Glitter Ash Wednesday services, which were started by New York faith groups in 2017, are celebrated by thousands of churches nationwide, but aren't common in Minnesota.
The Episcopal and Presbyterian clergy who initiated the modified practice saw an opportunity in the conspicuous nature of Ash Wednesday — a day that Catholics and many Protestants show their faith on their foreheads. They decided to add new symbolism to the mix, joining the hope and celebration of the glitter to the ashes, which signify mortality and repentance.
The Rev. Michael Le Buhn Jr., a Hastings hospital chaplain, learned about Glitter Ash Wednesday in 2018, when he was a divinity student in Tennessee. He found the modified practice meaningful and wanted to see if he could rally other clergy and faithful in Hastings to get behind it.
"Glitter Ash Wednesday is when I feel the most authentic in my ministry," he said. "It's when I feel like I'm participating in a ritual that I can 100 percent say, 'Amen,' at the end with no hesitation, no reservation. Whereas these other rituals have been used and will be used in congregation after congregation after congregation that absolutely is not welcoming to my trans siblings."
Local groups, including Hastings IDEA: Inclusion, Diversity & Equality Alliance and Afton Indivisible supported Le Buhn. And several area clergy — including an Episcopal priest, a few Lutheran pastors, and a Presbyterian pastor — joined him for Ash Wednesday events downtown and in Pioneer Park. They also offered to make biodegradable glitter ash available to parishioners during Ash Wednesday services at their churches.
The Rev. Beth Wanamaker, a priest at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, said she's become "passionate" about transgender rights after seeing what the Waits family went through in Hastings. "I really wanted folks to know that when we say we welcome all, we do," she said.
The idea of Glitter Ash Wednesday has been unevenly embraced, even by denominations that support LGBTQ inclusion efforts.
"The ashes are intended as a sign of repentance. They are a mark of mortality," said liturgy scholar the Rev. Ruth Meyers, a dean at the West Coast Episcopal seminary Church Divinity School of the Pacific. "The historic words that are said is, 'Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.' The glitter just really changes that symbolism pretty significantly."
Meyers said she fears adding glitter to the traditional ash could undermine the day's significance as the beginning of the season leading to Easter.
"When you introduce a dramatic change like this, you have conflicting narratives that are happening there with the symbol," she said. "One is that sign of repentance, of deep humility, of rootedness in the earth, of really getting in touch with our mortality. And then the real celebratory sign of the glitter. And those two don't fit easily together."
On Wednesday morning, Le Buhn, Wanamaker and the other clergy celebrating Glitter Ash Wednesday drew more honks, waves and double takes from drivers in passing cars than faithful lining up for sparkly ashes.
But Le Buhn was undeterred.
"Us out here with our collars on and our 'Glitter Ash Wednesday' sign, especially in a small town like this, word is getting around," he said.