Some churches add glitter to the gray on Ash Wednesday to show unity with LGBT community

A smudge of char in the shape of a cross on the forehead on Ash Wednesday is a reminder for Christians of two human themes that unite them: Everybody sins and everybody dies. As they enter the season of Lent, some believers are sprinkling glitter into their ashes to signify that everybody’s equal in God’s eyes, too, including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

“The outside world has gotten this view of Christianity that Christ is against the LGBT community,” said the Rev. Vance Haywood Jr., senior pastor of St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church in Raleigh, which is joining the Glitter+Ash Wednesday movement this year. Combining the symbol of the cross, representing the church, with glitter, representing the LGBT community, is an acknowledgment that the two can do more than simply co-exist, Haywood said.

“They are one. When Christ died, he died for all people, not just for some,” he said.

Worshipers can drop by the church for the imposition of ashes after 1 p.m. Wednesday, or attend the church’s 7 p.m. Ash Wednesday service. Glittery and regular ashes will be available at both.

Glitter+Ash Wednesday was launched by Parity, a New York-based group that supports LGBT pastors and encourages LGBT young people to integrate their spiritual, gender and sexual identities. Last year, the group says, more than 200 churches and faith groups participated.

This year, at least three churches in North Carolina plan to offer glitter ashes on Ash Wednesday to celebrants who want it.

Pastor Vance Haywood has added glitter to this year's ashes for Ash Wednesday at St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church in Raleigh. Juli Leonard

Ash Wednesday observances date back to at least the 11th century, according to church historians, who note references throughout the Bible in which different characters mourn or repent of their sins and sprinkle ashes or dust on their heads. In a modern service, worshipers usually come forward and a priest or pastor dips a finger into a small pot of ashes and marks the worshiper’s forehead with a cross, saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

For purists, the ash comes from the burning of the palm branches used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday service, but many churches simply order ashes online the same way they might buy choir robes or collection plates. Commercially produced ashes may consist mostly of a cosmetic powder similar to eye shadow, which doesn’t generate cinders that fall into worshipers’ eyes and contact lenses.

Not all Christian denominations, or even all churches within a denomination, hold Ash Wednesday services, though they are popular among Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist congregations.

Observing Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a period of prayer and reflection leading up to Easter, when the Christian church celebrates Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Traditionally, adherents intentionally have sacrificed something – a cherished food, a favorite activity – during Lent to denote Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. In recent years, many churches have encouraged members to add something to their lives instead during Lent, such as a commitment to working in a soup kitchen or other community service.

This year, some local churches are forgoing evening Ash Wednesday services because the day coincides with Valentine’s Day and so many couples and families plan evenings out.

In lieu of a formal service, some churches, including Christ the King Lutheran in Cary, are offering drive-through imposition of ashes, where the pastor is posted in the church parking lot for designated windows of time during the day, and meets with individual worshipers there.

Some churches also hold a foot-washing ceremony during Ash Wednesday services.

The range of options for marking the day seems to make it ripe for ecclesiastical experimentation, and Parity saw that as an opportunity to counter what many progressive Christians see as hostility toward LBGT people in some mainstream denominations.

The group chose glitter because LGBT people have long adorned themselves with it at parades and protests in celebration of what others perceive as their differences from the rest of the population.

Rainbow glitter

For Glitter+Ash Wednesday, some churches are adding a dark purple sparkle to the ashes, since purple is the liturgical color for Lent. Others, including St. John’s, are adding a smattering of rainbow glitter, with rainbows being a symbol of inclusion.

Craig Schaub, pastor of Parkway United Church of Christ in Winston-Salem, will offer glitter ashes to those who come to the church on Ash Wednesday during any of three half-hour windows. Weather permitting, he said, he and an associate pastor will be in the parking lot to bestow the ashes – plain or sparkly – along with a blessing with oil and a short conversation about living with intention during Lent.

Karen Ware Jackson, pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, said her church began offering glitter ashes last year at an Ash Wednesday event at Founders Hall on the campus of Guilford College, which it will repeat this year from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Jackson said there are members in her church who have said the glitter is unnecessary and they don’t want it added to their ashes. That’s fine, she said.

“But there are those of us who live lives that are privileged and are mostly happy and mostly about living,” Jackson said, while others live in darkness and sadness. “Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are no better than anyone else. We all belong to God, in life and death.”

Jackson said she likes the idea of glitter representing LGBT people because its color and sparkle are irrepressible, like the love of God.

“I’m really connected to ashes,” she said. “But I’m really connected to glitter, too, and I think it’s appropriate to do both.”

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin