Ash Wednesday, 2016
People are going about their business with big, black smudges on their foreheads.
My queer lens kicks in: “They’ve come out of the closet—as Christian.” Then the lightbulb moment: “What if progressive Christians could make ourselves visible on Ash Wednesday as both Christian AND queer-positive?” I make a note on my phone and set an alarm to go off in January.
I am still nauseous with shame at America’s election folly. We are about to inaugurate a man who has openly disparaged women, Muslims, people of color, immigrants, and refugees. The Christian Right has crawled into bed with him. Prospects for LGBTQ justice are bleak.
My phone chirps at me. “Ash Wednesday: Visibly Queer, Visibly Christian.” Oh yeah. That idea. But how to signify our queerness? I ask my girlfriend, who is packing for the Women’s March on Washington. She doesn’t miss a beat.
“Glitter. Put glitter in the ashes.”
I confess even this theatre-geek super-gay priest balks at the idea. Ash Wednesday is about repentance. Ash Wednesday demands that people confront our fear of death as we approach the violence of Holy Week. Doesn’t glitter seem, you know, the opposite of that?
We hit the books and quickly come up with a line from St. Augustine. When you repent, Augustine wrote, beware of despair. Despair paralyzes, thwarting our ability to make the changes we need to make.
Glitter as the antidote to despair. Glitter as a symbol of queer empowerment. Glitter that makes our queer selves fabulously conspicuous, even as we stare our mortality right in the eye. In today’s world, the stakes are perilously high for those of us who dare to tell the truth about our lives. What could be truer to this moment than the dissonance of ashes mixed with glitter?
And so “Glitter+Ash Wednesday” is born. Parity comes on board immediately as a co-sponsor, and we are off.
A piece in Religion News Service goes national, and within three weeks we have 150 congregations in three countries signed up to distribute ashes mixed with purple glitter. We work hard to communicate that our intent is not to trivialize Ash Wednesday.
Even so, we receive pushback immediately. Some of it is loud, from predictable right wing voices. Some of it is quiet, from clergy in mainline denominations who, despite considering themselves “progressive,” are deeply uncomfortable with this kind of innovation. Some of it comes from people who work overtime to insist that they support queer people but feel that this action is somehow blasphemous. Some suggest with rather circuitous logic that the project is dismissive of queer people. Right or left, the chorus chants a fairly unified message: “You fundamentally misunderstand what Ash Wednesday is about.”
The unpleasantness of these attacks notwithstanding, we do not receive death threats. I breathe a sigh of relief when we get through Ash Wednesday with no reports of violence.
An email comes in from one of the pastors who participated in Glitter+Ash Wednesday, the Rev. Grace Murray from Fargo, North Dakota. She wants to stay on our list but asks that we replace her church email with her personal address, because she has just been fired. Offering Glitter+Ash was not the only factor—she had also rented out worship space to a church of Liberian immigrants—but it was one brick in a wall of anger over her embrace of LGBTQ people and people of color. Her local paper covered her dismissal.
I want to call Grace right away, but I also take a minute to think about what I will say. It is terrible what has happened to her. Do I regret launching this project, knowing that it cost someone a job? No, I don’t. Preaching a message that unsettles people is risky business. Grace knew that, and I wasn’t going to disrespect the courage she had shown by mumbling a cheap apology.
When I get her on the phone, I tell her how sorry I am that she has lost her job. She doesn’t miss a beat. “That’s the price we pay. I can’t preach a fake gospel.” There is nothing glib in her response. She doesn’t know what is coming next for her, how she and her husband will survive financially. Some of the church members who stood with her are pressing to form a new community, a hopeful but daunting venture.
Grace is a white, straight, cisgender woman who sees her faith through what I would call a queer lens. Her story now is a queer mix of success and failure, strength and weakness, power and vulnerability—the same potent combination that set Jesus’s followers on fire 2,000 years ago. The same potent combination that propels many queer people out into the streets year after year to march for Pride.
Tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that
Queer Pride involves celebration in the midst of struggle, life in the face of death. This is a paradox that exists not just in the heart of queer experience, but also in the heart of any authentic iteration of the Christian faith. Grace Murray is one of millions of people across the globe who understand this paradox and who make daily decisions to rise to the challenge and risk for the sake of love, for the sake of Pride.
We will keep using glitter to explore the Queer/Christian paradox. We will keep working to make faith like Grace’s visible in the world. We will keep working to help Christians see what many queer people know in our bones:
Glitter shimmers with gritty life.
Glitter exacts a price.
The price is worth it.
About the Author
The Reverend Elizabeth M. Edman is an Episcopal priest and a political strategist who has been expanding people’s understanding of faith and sexuality for over twenty-five years. She has worked on the most pressing contemporary issues in the intersection of religion and sexuality, serving as an inner-city hospital chaplain to people with HIV/AIDS from 1989 to 1995 and helping to craft political and communications strategies for marriage-equality efforts. She lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @ and visit her website.