On Ash Wednesday, Some Employees Take Their Cross Back to Work

On the first day of Lent, Christians face a dilemma: Wear an ashen cross to work or wipe it off?

BY: Amy Green
Religion News Service

 

(RNS) John Spink, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution photographer, often observes Ash Wednesday while shooting services for the newspaper. He usually sets aside his camera, walks to the altar and feels the sensation of a finger making the blackened image of a cross.

Spink says he then returns to the office, sometimes getting quizzical looks and odd comments, such as "Excuse me, there's something on your forehead."

Many Christians will mark the start of Lent on March 1 by observing Ash Wednesday, when an ashen cross is placed on the forehead as a sign of one's sins and penance. But the day poses a dilemma at work. With office religious displays often a sensitive issue, could the ashen cross be seen as a proselytizing gesture? And if workers wipe off ashes after attending daytime services, are they somehow denying their faith?

For Spink the answers are clear. Ash Wednesday, observed by Catholics and some Protestants, is an acknowledgment of mortality -- we all return to ashes or dust -- and a call to the Lenten period of penance. Spink says he has nothing to hide, even in his newsroom.

"I'm going to be a Catholic inside the workplace and outside the workplace," said Spink, 48. "Religion is a big part of the American culture, and I think people are at least educated enough to recognize what Catholics do, what Jews do and what Muslims do."

Sometimes that isn't the case.

CNN founder Ted Turner famously called staff members "Jesus freaks" in 2001 when they wore ashen crosses to a meeting in Washington. He later apologized. In San Diego, a retirement home supervisor was fired in 1997 after forcibly removing an ashen cross from an employee's forehead with a dishcloth when the employee refused to remove it herself, said Kiera McCaffrey, spokeswoman for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. And in LaGrange, Ga., a police detective was fired and then reinstated in 1994 after wearing an ashen cross to work.

Liley Gilbert, 41, a Baptist, has attended Ash Wednesday services since she began work 12 years ago as a bookkeeper for the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi. She always removes her ashen cross before returning to work, mostly because her job requires frequent trips to the bank and she grew tired of people telling her she had a smudge on her forehead.

Catholicism officially teaches that the ashen cross should be worn until it wears away naturally, but Gilbert says she has no need to advertise her faith.

"I don't feel like I'm keeping my religion a secret," said Gilbert of Jackson, Miss. "Church is personal and, like I say, not for show, not for fashion. ... People will know just by my walk, just by my talk, just by the way I live."

Continued on page 2: The ashen cross and the First Amendment »

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