Ash Wednesday afternoon a Trinity member called me because the soccer team he helps coach at his High School was forced to reschedule a game against a big rival from the night before to Wednesday night. As a result, a bunch of the guys on his team were lamenting that they wouldn't be able to attend services that night and receive Ashes (most of them concerned about what their mom's might say if they didn't of course). So T gave me a call out of the blue and said, "Hey Pastor, could you come over and say a prayer or something with these guys?"
Of course I jumped at the opportunity, got in my car, drove across town and arrived just as the JV team was finishing up practice and the opposing team was arriving. Although initially jazzed at this opportunity to be with these young people as I walked down to the Soccer pitch (which is situated on a bluff overlooking downtown Fort Worth, quite a stunning view) I became a little apprehensive at what I might find. After all, this is a public school, this is before a big soccer game with playoff implications, what kind of reception might I receive from the other coaches or school officials.
As always, a smiling welcoming face calmed my apprehension. T welcomed me over, introduced me to the head coach of his team and a couple of his guys, and then we went over and talked to the other coach. Obviously and rightly focused on the task at hand, he kind of sideways mentioned to some of his players, "Hey, this Pastor is here to give anyone who wants it ashes, any of you guys missing church tonight?" Half the hands of his team shot up.
About 5 minutes later, with the guys from T's team who wanted to participate and their opponents. We gathered, twelve or fifteen of us, at one end of the pitch, in the shadow of the goal and took hands and prayed. Then one by one I went around and made the sign of the cross in ashes on their forehead, asking each their name and then saying "Steve, remember you are dust and to dust you shall return" and so on I did this for Jose, Raju, Tom, Diego and so on (not their real names, but representative). White, Black, Latino, Central Asian...from many religious backgrounds and socio-economic realities. I made the sign of the cross on their forehead and one by one, as I completed that, they turned and ran back, to join their team for warm-up.
Two teams from different ends of Fort Worth, young men in the very prime of life, invincible in their minds, brought together by a ritual that reminds us that they are not invincible, that they are dust and shall return to that dust. Brought together because of a relationship that was formed by a Pastor who came before me, that I have had the honor of developing and I am witnessing grow into a true discipleship relationship. Brought together by a phone call.
I hear a lot of my Pastor friends and parishioners lament about the disestablishment of religion in our schools. About not having school prayer etc... I have to be honest, I never grew up in that world and frankly, I prefer this. This is honest proclamation brought on by relationships of trust and accountability that have grown over years. I was there not because the establishment hierarchy told me to, I was their because of a friend. Those youth participated not because this was mandatory chapel, they did it because they knew it was something important to them and their families. But I will say one thing for this way, it requires more work, relationships and ultimately, it requires the willingness to receive rejection.
In the stands afterwards, T heard and addressed a bunch of questions about what had gone on. Questions asked by those who had NEVER seen anything like that, who had never heard of Ash Wednesday. No doubt, those youth who participated were asked questions about what they had participated in. I didn't stay to address that, they stayed, they were the witnesses that day. The mark of their faith was boldly proclaimed on their forehead, mingling with the sweat of their exertion as they competed for victory. The mark of faith reminding us all that the victory has already been won.
God has not been banished from our schools, so long as those disciples of God are willing to go and take the opportunities the Spirit presents for us to witness. Thank you T, for that chance and for being willing to witness.