This essay is a product of the Collegeville Institute’s Emerging Writers Mentorship Program, a 9-month program for writers who address matters of faith in their work. Each participant has the opportunity to publish their work at Bearings Online. Click here to read essays from past Emerging Writers Program cohorts.
It was a cold Wednesday morning in March 2017, and the San Francisco streets were wet, dirty, and greasy, the condition made worse by the previous night’s rain. The street vendor near the exit of the 24th St/Mission BART station held his cigarette between the wet fingers of one hand and with the other, an umbrella covering his merchandise. I hopped around the potholes, dodging the cyclists and drivers who evidently ignored the pedestrians’ signal to use the crossroad.
As a chaplain intern, I was fascinated by the women performing the ritual.
A group of women dressed in black cassocks stood around the street corners in strategic positions where the human traffic was heavy. They held vials that contained ashes. I watched as most people walked to the women and away with the sign of the cross, dark on their foreheads. It was Ash Wednesday. As a chaplain intern, I was fascinated by the women performing the ritual. I was formed in a faith tradition and community where it was the male ordained priests who performed most traditional church rituals and sacraments; it was unusual to see lay people, particularly women, perform certain ceremonial roles.
For me, Ash Wednesday had always had a doomsday feeling about it
For me, the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday had always had a doomsday feeling about it that was marked with the dark ashes and the purple vestments the priests wear that reflect sorrow and suffering but also hope. As a young adult, I couldn’t find meaning in the suffering and never comprehended the words that the priests pronounced when they administered ashes on my forehead: “From dust you come, from dust you return.” I didn’t find them redemptive or comforting, but rather heard a finality. I didn’t see hope beyond the dust. It was then just a ritual that marked the beginning of another liturgical season of the Church.
As I walked down the streets to the trauma hospital where I would be administering ashes that day, I felt a looming darkness that I associated with fasting and Lent. A few days earlier, when my supervisor had communicated through her office door that I would be participating in administering the ashes, I’d shifted back and forth in my seat. I was a chaplain intern, shy and still unconfident in my role. It is the priest who administers ashes, I thought to myself. It wasn’t uncommon for my services to be declined by patients who preferred to have a male priest perform any rituals, sacramental or not. Who was I to administer these ashes? If I didn’t find meaning in the words professed, how would I say them over someone else with authenticity? Ministry is service, but it also puts one in a position of authority; I couldn’t reconcile my discomfort with my call to ministry.
I experienced an internal struggle with the role I was being asked to perform.
I experienced an internal struggle with the role I was being asked to perform. I didn’t want to take on a responsibility and position that I was formed to believe belonged to the male ordained priest. Two years in a Catholic seminary, attending classes with men who were being formed to serve as priests, had not helped my discomfort.
When I arrived at the hospital and picked up the vial to begin administering the ashes, I pondered Elisha’s first meeting with Elijah while he was working the land and the cloak was thrown over him. Did he wrestle with his call?
A city policeman was sitting by the ICU entrance to a room in which a convict from the county jail was hospitalized. About six feet tall, clad in his dark uniform, police gear with the pistol, Taser, and other gadgets around his waistline, he kept his eyes low watching the floor between his feet. He held his hands so tight his white knuckles looked like they’d been drained of blood. I assumed that he was avoiding any possibility of interaction with anyone who would distract him from his current assignment. My supervisor walked up to the policeman, introduced us and asked if he wanted to receive the ashes. The policeman quickly declined, “No ma’am,” keeping his gaze low.
I stared at him and my thoughts wandered to the many media reports about police brutality and racial profiling that led to the unwarranted deaths of Black men. I was afraid of a policeman in uniform with a gun. And I sensed my relief when he declined the ashes.
I was afraid of a policeman in uniform with a gun.
No sooner had we walked out the first set of doors in that part of the ICU units, than we heard someone calling out, “Ma’am, Ma’am.” I looked back and felt a sudden fear as the police officer approached us. He ran up to us and stated that he wanted to have the ashes if we could. “I am on duty and didn’t know if I could do it without my supervisor’s permission.”
“You will do that,” my supervisor said. I started to say something in hesitation but stopped. I turned towards the policeman, avoiding eye contact. I introduced myself and asked him what his name was.
“Matthew, Matthew is my name,” he said. Matthew held his hands together close to his chest, and slightly bent down as one about to genuflect.
All the differences and conflict, and my insecurities, melted away like the wax of a candle brought close to a burning stove.
As my thumb touched his forehead, announcing the dreaded words, “From dust you come, from dust you return,” everything stopped. It was me, Matthew, and a transforming, liberating grace. Thumb on forehead, all the differences and conflict in the world, the insecurities about my call to ministry, melted away like the wax of a candle brought close to a burning stove. A Black, female, immigrant, chaplain, and a white, male, police officer—neither had more power or authority. In that moment, the fear and self-doubt I had earlier dissolved. The ashes fell from his forehead onto the hem of my trousers and onto my shoes. A baptism of ashes.
Somehow, on this not so ordinary Wednesday, my interaction with the policeman became my answer: Yes, you are the favored one Nabuule. Yes, you have a place at the table. Yes, you have been chosen, anointed, and empowered to do this ministry. At this time of heightened conversations about police brutality, God, through the administration of ashes, used this moment to bring change and transformation for me; the sacrilegious became an affirmation of the call to hospital chaplaincy.
You have a place at the table.
I walked back to my work station knowing that something had shifted within me. The ashes were not an end in themselves—a damnation—but a beginning of something new. Something life-giving. When Matthew ran up to me with the request for ashes, I was humbled by his piety—and, like Elisha, touched and confirmed in my ministry.
Like this post? Subscribe to have new posts sent to you by email the same day they are posted.
Elisa Schneider says
Thank you Nabuule for sharing your humble journey. This was beautifully written, and just what I needed to hear this day. God bless you in your work, your sacrifice, and your love for all.
Jenni Ho-Huan says
Thank you for this moving piece. I am sure it shifts something in all of us as we read. As a woman, I can relate to how Nabuule feels.