Last February, Middle Church gathered at their 128-year-old sanctuary in the East Village to observe Ash Wednesday. Like churches around the world, Middle Church administered ashes on their congregants’ foreheads. But quite unlike other churches, the community considered the finitude of human life by commemorating the full import of the date, February 26—the anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death.
Throughout the service, all pastors wore gray hoodies, as Martin wore when killed. And on the altar alongside the traditional bread and wine of communion, Martin’s last meal was served—Skittles and iced tea. “We did that because we believe Lent is this moment that reminds us . . . how in our humanness, sometimes we sin,” said Reverend Amanda Hambrick Ashcraft, the Executive Minister for Justice, Education, and Movement Building at Middle Church. “And as a society, we fall short—especially in the areas of racial justice and equity.”
As the service concluded, Reverend Benjamin Perry, with his hood pulled toward his ash-streaked brow, encouraged the community to help build a world of peace. The congregation exited in silence through the historic, stained-glass sanctuary, back into the winter streets of New York City, and into 2020 as it would unfold.
Ash Wednesday would be Middle Church’s last liturgical holiday in the church. Within weeks, COVID-19 would inhibit the congregation from meeting in person, a tragedy shared by the rest of the world. And by the end of the year, Middle Church would experience an exclusive loss—an accidental early-morning fire would spark inside their 19th-century sanctuary.
2020—a year when grief characterized appraisals of equity, justice, economics, politics, health, and mortality—has uniquely positioned churches to lament as they prepare to observe Ash Wednesday on February 17. The liturgical holiday inaugurates Lent—the 40-day season of fasting and lament to prepare for the celebration of Easter—with an invitation to contemplate human mortality. As told in the Biblical origin story, God created mankind from the dust of the earth, but it is ultimately to this dust that mankind returns. And it is through the grief and reflection of Ash Wednesday that congregants consider how to live in the interim as they consider that which is finite—and that which is infinite.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about how we were going to do ashes,” Ashcraft said. She consulted the Facebook group Spiritual and Communal Practices for COVID-19, but the suggestions weren’t viable. Some churches plan to mail ashes to congregants at home, but that wasn’t an option for Middle Church: “We have 3,500 members, I’m not stuffing that many ashes in an envelope!” Ashcraft said. And they couldn’t invite congregants to receive ashes socially-distanced because remaining remote throughout the pandemic has been an integral practice of their values. Since New York City issued lockdown orders last March, the congregation has consistently remained online even when lower transmission rates permitted small group gatherings. “As a way to love our neighbors . . . we’re not even going to do it with ten people. If it’s not safe for everybody, it’s not safe for anybody,” Ashcraft said.
This sentiment—like their unorthodox practice of a traditional holiday last Ash Wednesday—evidences much of who Middle Church is. This multiethnic, multiracial, intergenerational, LGBTIQA+, interfaith community is, as stated on their website, as diverse as a New York City subway. And their mission is to “heal the soul and the world by dismantling racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic systems of oppression” through revolutionary love.
Their beliefs today diverge from who Middle Church once was, but their history is a story they transparently address and seek to rectify. Their 17th century Dutch founders exploited the local Lenape people to acquire land, and some early clergymen owned enslaved people. Their honest reckoning with the past helps Middle Church more forward—it is also why Ash Wednesday is essential to the church: “Public lament gives us space to intentionally look back and know our history . . . so that then we can look forward to continue to create the world that we want to live in,” Ashcraft said.
It was in 1892, as the early Middle Church community grew within the growing city of Manhattan, that they built their church in what is now the East Village. This year, Middle Church’s remote Ash Wednesday lamentations will grieve the loss of this sanctuary.
At 4:45am on December 5, Ashcraft was awoken by a phone alert notifying her of a fire at the church. “It was a nightmare, an absolute out-of-body, surreal experience,” she recalled. “Running through the East Village and [coming] upon the church engulfed in yellow flames was horrific.” Though the fire, ignited by an electrical problem, would consume the sanctuary, the executive ministers remained intentional about how to lament the tragedy—it was a building that burned, not the Church. In the aftermath, as Middle Church gathered virtually to grieve, Senior Pastor Reverend Jacqui Lewis maintained that their movement of revolutionary love and justice could never be stopped, not even by a fire.
The burned sanctuary on the corner of 7th Street and 2nd Avenue may look irrevocably different from the church of 1892—but so does the Middle Church congregation. And as this vibrant community of love and justice gathers virtually to commence Lent, the ashes that now streak their sanctuary (temporary ashes because they will rebuild) may inspire their liturgical reflections.
Eventually, the church staff found a solution for administering ashes remotely that captures the humility and humanity of the holiday: “We think it’s so beautiful . . . mud is accessible to everyone,” Ashcraft said.
On Ash Wednesday, the community of Middle Church will gather mud from any outdoor space to apply to their foreheads. Though scattered across New York City, congregants will be united through the common Earth of mud. As explained on their worship site, “This ritual will remind us that humans are all ‘adam,’ all created from the red earth—adamah. . . In this act, we hope to remind you that you belong to the Earth, God and one another.”
“I read an article recently of a pastor saying, ‘Do we even need to have Lent this year? Haven’t we been living in Lent for the past year?’ And the truth is, we have to do it,” said Ashcraft. “We need the reminder that we ourselves are human. And that we are finite and that we need something else.”