Ash Wednesday is the most observed Christian service in the world. The number of attendees to services on Ash Wednesday has been recorded to trump both Christmas and Easter services. One Hope student, Cameron Smith (’23), joined the ranks of Christian believers in participating in his first-ever Ash Wednesday service. Upon returning to his dorm, Smith explained he became “intensely self-aware” and was prompted to return to his dorm and write the following reflection.
“Remember, O man, from dust you came and from dust, you shall return.” These are the traditional words spoken over someone receiving a cross of ashes on their forehead to commemorate Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent, a time put aside by Christians all around the world to reflect on Christ’s suffering and to meditate on repentance. This year I observed Ash Wednesday for the first time, and as I walked around Hope’s campus, I became very, very aware of how my religious identity was on display for everyone to see. Was that person looking at me weird? Was the acquaintance I passed and greeted this morning just in a good mood, or were they laughing at the splotchy cross on my head? And in reflecting on the thoughts I, a white Christian had while walking across the campus of Hope’s very white, very Christian college, was able to better (but certainly not fully) understand the constant internal struggle of someone who always displays their religion on their body. A muslim women who proudly wears a hijab or a Sikh man wearing a turban, living in a country that tells them to conform or leave, but who instead live their identities proudly in a society telling them to keep (non-Christian) religious convictions to themselves. Tonight, I will wash the cross of ashes off, and no stranger on the street will stare awkwardly at my forehead, but my Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and other religious siblings will continue having their identities on full display. They will be, at best, stared at, and at worst, verbally accosted or even physically attacked. Therefore, we all, regardless of our religious identity or lack thereof, would do well to remember those for whom the very acts of going to a grocery store or walking to class are put in danger. As I meditate this Lenten season, I am called to repent for all the harm done to those in the name of Christ, for the times the cross I wear now on my forehead has been used to justify the oppression of “the least of these,” those on the margins of society—the poor, the foreigner, the orphan, religious minorities, sexual minorities, and others. I remember that “from dust I came, and from dust I shall return,” and in that, I must use the short amount of time I have to help create a more just world for future generations. We may be dust, but dust made in the image of God, and all people, of all faiths, should be seen as unique image bearers of the divine.
As a Biblical studies and classical studies double major, Smith was drawn to Hope “due to its Christian heritage,” but fostered a strong appreciation for the “ideological diverse religion department” and “loved the sense of community.” He is the Vice President of Hope’s Interfaith Youth Alliance, a recently-founded organization on campus. When questioned about the role of faith in his life, he was more than happy to share that he is “utterly captivated by the person of Jesus, and trying to follow His teachings.” When pressed for further explanation, Smith explained: “I think of a passage from Matthew 25, the separation of the Sheep and the Goats. Essentially, Jesus tells his followers that those of them who serve the poor, the foreigner, the prisoner, the widow, and ‘the least of these’ don’t just serve others, they serve Jesus Himself, while those who fail to do so fail to do so for Him. I am working to help the marginalized in my life.” It is this desire to serve those in need that pushed Cameron to write his reflection. He continued saying, “What’s more, my Christian faith has encouraged me to do interfaith work; if we really want to serve the world the best we can, we should be able to work with people of other faiths who share those same goals, and should be able to engage in respectful and constructive conversation to better understand our neighbors.”
As a primarily Christian campus, Hope is not flooded with outward displays of faith. There is not an easily identifiable symbol of Christianity beyond a cross, which typically is worn as a small pendant. It was this issue that Smith addressed in his Ash Wednesday exposé. He concluded saying, ” I hope people, especially Protestant Christians such as myself, will be more aware of the experience of conspicuous religiosity. By that, I mean a visible outward sign of one’s religious belief. For many religious and ethnic minorities, this is a part of everyday life, whether by an article of clothing important to their faith or simply the color of their skin, which the white majority immediately sees as “other.” Even knowing that the majority of Hope students share my faith tradition, I felt alienated that day; I can only imagine the experience of a Muslim woman wearing a Hijab or a Sikh man wearing a turban. Ultimately I hope people gain a sense of empathy for people we think of as very different from ourselves, but actually share a lot with.”