Church communities in Des Moines show acceptance for members of the LGBTQ+ community on Ash Wednesday

Words and Photos by Angela Ufheil

Pastor Debbie Griffin sprinted into the street Wednesday morning. Her friend’s car idled at a stoplight, so she only had a moment to smear purple glitter in the shape of a cross on his forehead.

March 1 was Ash Wednesday, a day sacred to many Christians. It kicked off Lent, a season of repentance and prayer ending on Easter Sunday. Usually, Griffin marks Christians’ foreheads with a soot-colored cross, a declaration of faith and an acknowledgement of each person’s potential for sin.

But this year, the day got a sparkly update, thanks to some churches’ effort to show solidarity to members of the LGBTQ+ community. Pastors like Griffin mixed glitter, an important element of queer history, into the traditional mixture of ash and oil. “It’s to make a public statement that we affirm lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer people and all people,” Griffin said.

Griffin is a pastor for the Downtown Disciples, a progressive Christian community based in Des Moines. She was inspired to add glitter to the ashes by Parity, a New York City-based group for members of the LGBTQ+ community who want to become pastors or forge a connection with God. Parity sent glitter to interested congregations across the U.S., and demand was so great they soon ran out.

Luckily, Griffin had plenty of glitter to share. She spent the chilly morning trekking from the downtown bus station to the YMCA shelter, offering the shimmering ashes to everyone around her. In the afternoon, she stopped by the Blazing Saddle, a Des Moines gay bar.

Pastor Debbie Griffin of the Downtown Disciples passes out glitter ashes at the Blazing Saddle, a Des Moines gay bar.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community seemed to like the shimmering addition. Irman Luqueno said he felt alienated from the Catholic church after he came out as gay when he was 18 years old. “But now, knowing what the glitter ash stands for, I wanted to participate,” he said.

Griffin wanted to make sure the ashes, which historically symbolize repentance, didn’t send the wrong message to people. “The glitter ashes give the message that we’re not asking the LGBTQ community to repent who they are,” she said. “We are not only accepting, but welcoming.”

Not all religious authorities understood why glitter was necessary. Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Pates, who serves the Des Moines diocese, said that the ashes are the most inclusive symbol in the church. “All of us are sinners. That’s the whole theme of Ash Wednesday,” he said. “We want to maintain that wide inclusivity without trying to break it down into different groups.”

But Griffin thinks Christians need to be more explicit. “The glitter is important because even though we might say the ashes include everyone, there’s a difference between just saying it and actually affirming everybody,” she said.

Michelle Mead receives glitter ashes from Kathi Sircy at the Des Moines Intentional Eucharistic Community’s Ash Wednesday service.

The glitter ashes weren’t limited to the efforts of one pastor wandering downtown Des Moines. Lisa Mullen led the Ash Wednesday prayer service for the Des Moines Intentional Eucharistic Community. She said they mixed cosmetic-grade glitter in with the ash during their evening ceremony.

“The glitter fit in so well with our message of ashes holding more than just a reminder of our death, but also holding a promise of where we came from and where we’re going back to,” Mullen said. “The whole idea of being made of the same stuff as stars, all of us all together, it just fit.”

Nearly 40 parishioners, including same-sex couples, gathered at the evening service. They stood in a circle and passed the small dish of ashes around, anointing one another with what they called “stardust.”

“So often, church has been a place that separates those who somehow meet certain requirements, like it’s a club,” Mullen said. “Here, the whole centerpiece of the way we celebrate is that all are welcome. Especially given the church’s history of being exclusionary, it was important to say ‘here’s a way we can move forward.’”

As they left the place of worship, parishioners wore sparkling crosses as badges of pride, and a reminder that all are welcome in their church.