Ashes on the Go
"You are not going to believe this. I'm getting kicked out of the Chula Vista Mall for administering ashes." That was the beginning of a phone conversation this past Ash Wednesday.
Fr. Tolley, Tom Morelli, Postulant Phil Loveless and I went to the outdoor mall on H and Broadway to participate in our annual "Ashes on the Go" event. "Ashes on the Go" is a simple program; we sit outside of Starbucks for an hour or so and administer ashes to anyone who asks for them. Last year we had a surprisingly good turnout. We had high hopes for this year.
After getting our coffee, we set up two 11x17 signs that said, "Ashes on the Go." As soon as we were set up, people started flocking to us. All four of us were administering ashes. It was great. Just then, two yellow-clad mall security officers pulled up on their bicycles. A uniformed officer then walked over and said, "Do you have a permit for doing this?" I walked a couple of steps from our group and replied, "No, I didn't think we needed one." The officer replied, "Then I'm going to have to ask you guys to stop doing what you are doing. You need to take down your signs and stop soliciting people." Customers began complaining and the situation started to get elevated. Tom wisely asked for directions to the Mall office and left with one of the most vocal and angry customers, Sandra. I then took down the signs, covered up the ashes, and asked, "Is it okay to sit here and talk and drink our coffee." The officer nodded his assent so Fr. Tolley, Phil, and I sat down and tried to relax while a yellow-clad security people and the officer stood watch, occasionally saying something on the radio.
A man in his mid-twenties with dark hair that fell into his eyes came up to us with a skateboard in his hand and said, "I heard you guys are doing the-Ash-Wednesday-thing here." We looked at the officer, he shook his head no and said something into the radio. The skateboarder looked at the officer and said, "Come on, man, I have to get to work and this is my only chance to get ashes. Can't they just do it." The officer didn't move. Fr. Tolley said kindly, "Sir, why don't you just look the other way for a moment so we can take care of this young man." The officer looked toward the parking lot and the skateboarder received his ashes and went along his way.
Sometime later, the officer received a message on his radio and he walked away from us into the mall. The yellow-clad security person abruptly left just as Tom Morelli came around the corner. Smiling, he said, "Put the signs up, we're back in business." With Tom came the manager of the property, the head of security, and some other folks with very official looking identification lanyards around their necks. The manager introduced himself and asked if we could sit down and talk. He, Fr. Tolley, and I sat down. He handed me an eleven page form and said, "This is what we need for you to fill out. Once we receive it, give me a couple of days for approval, and we'll give you permission." I thanked him for the form, and the opportunity. I told him that we were planning to stick around for another twenty minutes and then would be on our way. He said twenty minutes sounded good. As he was leaving, I said, "I look forward to working with you on this project in the future" and shook his hand. After he left, Sandra, the angry customer, came back as we were packing up. She suggested that we return on Palm Sunday and hand out palms to all the customers. I thanked her and told her that I think God was speaking through her.
Our Postulant, Phil Loveless, will be working with us on a Palm Sunday program to do just that - hand out palms to remind everyone of the season and invite them to have a Holy Easter. I'll be meeting with the mall manager, with a completed eleven page form, $50 fee, and proof of $1M liability coverage. And we will all have a holy Easter.
- Fr. Marshall