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On Ash Wednesday, ashes to go — with a little extra sparkle for LGBT Christians

The Rev. Robin Anderson puts glitter ashes on a man’s forehead outside the Braddock Road Metro station in Alexandria. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

Smearing her thumb across 6-year-old Genevieve Dalton’s forehead, the Rev. Robin Anderson repeated the solemn words of Ash Wednesday: “From dust you came. To dust you shall return.”

Then Genevieve whirled away from the pastor, her forehead twinkling. “I really like glitter,” she proclaimed.

Genevieve, like thousands of other Christians nationwide, got her ashes on this Ash Wednesday with a side of sparkles. The Glitter Ash project, created by New York nonprofit Parity, encouraged clergy to mix glitter into the ashes this year, to represent the inclusion of LGBT people in Christian life.

“People are responding with such joy that they can show their faith and show that they are LGBT,” said the Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen, executive director of Parity. “LGBT people are people of faith, too. … On the day, Ash Wednesday, when Christians are publicly Christian, we are going to be publicly queer.”

They encouraged heterosexual supporters of LGBT inclusion to wear the glitter ashes, too.

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Glitter in the ashes, Anderson wrote on a whiteboard, is “a symbol of the gritty, glittery, scandalous hope that exists within all of us.” She propped the board up in front of the Braddock Road Metro station entrance, and offered sparkly ash to a stream of morning commuters.

In Alexandria, Va., most of the people who stopped at Anderson’s “ashes to go” station outside the Metro entrance were looking only for ashes, not glitter. “I won’t have time to go to Mass today,” quite a few of them muttered.

Christians of numerous denominations typically mark Ash Wednesday — the beginning of a 40-day period of repentance, known as Lent, that leads up to the celebration of Easter — by having a minister mark a cross on their foreheads with ash, a remembrance of mortality. The practice is most common among Catholics, but is observed in many Protestant denominations as well.

Those who wanted just ashes, no glitter, at Braddock Road went to the Rev. Jeanette Leisk of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, who was doling out plain ashes. But over the course of the morning commuter rush, more than a dozen people opted for the glitter ash.

“This is to be affirming for those who are LGBT and allies,” Anderson explained to those who were interested.

And for those in a hurry, she said simply, “These ashes have glitter in them.”

“That’s fine,” one man said, crossing himself after he got his glitter ash and then sprinting to catch a train.

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When Parity came up with the idea of glitter ashes, some Christians, even liberal ones, objected to the concept, saying that joyful glitter doesn’t belong on Ash Wednesday, a day of repentance. Others said that asking people to choose between glitter ash and regular ash would only deepen the bitter division in many Protestant churches over homosexuality.

Edmonds-Allen said that she consulted several theologians — including some from more conservative evangelical backgrounds — to ask if mixing glitter into the ashes would be sacrilegious. She said she gained their approval, then came up with a formula: blessed ashes from a church supply store, makeup-quality polyester purple glitter, and a little bit of olive oil to stick it all together.

Orders came in from churches nationwide — so many orders that Parity sold out of all 150 packages it made of $10 glitter ash, enough to smear the foreheads of 15,000 people. Then Edmonds-Allen started encouraging churches to just mix their own glitter ash.

Clergy who requested glitter ash included Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Mennonites and many more. Many were located in more conservative parts of the country — Madison, Tenn.; Bedford, Tex.; Boone, N.C.; Algona, Iowa; Richmond, Ind.; Jefferson, Ga.; Hayes, Kan.; and many more small towns across the Midwest and the South made the list, as did churches in the United Kingdom and Canada.

In Alexandria, Anderson said the project appealed to her church as soon as they heard about it. Commonwealth Baptist Church’s first statement on its website is, “All are welcome, no exceptions,” and it is affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists in large part because that small denomination is affirming of LGBT Christians.

“With the executive order repealing the bathroom protections for transgender Americans, there might be some extra fear now. … It might be a little more needed now,” she said. “If people are going to work with ashes on their head, why not ashes with glitter?”

Diane Jordan, 58, stopped to read Anderson’s marker board, which mentioned supporting LGBT people. She nodded. “Okay,” she said, stepping forward to offer her forehead to Anderson.

“It symbolizes a hope for me. You know, like a better tomorrow,” she said after getting her sparkly cross. “It makes people look and then they ask me. I like spreading the word.”

Jordan, who said she is Christian and straight, contributes every month to LGBT causes. “Everyone has their own life. Who am I to choose?” she said.

Elizabeth Oakes was on the way to her job at the Commerce Department, where she said she would hear her new boss, Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr., speak to employees for the first time since he was confirmed by the Senate on Monday. Her fellow employees have been anxious about President Trump’s administration, she said, adding, “Everyone’s a little downtrodden.”

She said it would symbolize her progressive values to walk into Ross’s speech wearing glitter ash. “I think it’s a little bit more positive, isn’t it?”

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