Pastor Walter Mitty was on Facebook a week ago when he noticed a post from Fr. Bob Sullivan, which said St. Mary’s was going to have a service of ashes this morning at 7:30.

He “liked” it because Fr. Bob is his friend and went on to the next post without thinking much of it. Community churches like his didn’t do that kind of liturgical stuff, considering it kind of superficial, didn’t get at the heart of the matter.

But as the day wore on, Ash Wednesday kept coming back to his mind until finally a voice from inside said, “You are avoiding the idea of getting ashes on your forehead because you’re afraid of what people will think.”

The voice was familiar to the pastor of Poplar Park Community Church, and he didn’t like it because it usually hit a nerve and pushed him to get out of his comfort zone. After years of experience with the voice, he knew it would keep at him until he responded.

“Am I hiding who I am in the closet?” he wondered. The question nagged him until a couple hours later he decided to go the 7:30 a.m. service at St. Mary’s and see what it felt like to have Fr. Bob smudge his forehead and say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” and not wash it off until he went to bed.

So this morning he walked to the other side of town and as he stood in line with all those Catholic parishioners who knew who he was, he felt extremely self-conscious. 

“That’s what small towns are like,” he thought. “Everyone knows your business.”

After the service, he resisted the temptation to go the washroom at St. Mary’s and see what he looked like in the mirror, but as he walked the six blocks back to his office, he couldn’t help thinking that everyone was looking at him.

As he entered the Poplar Park Mini-Mart to pick up a newspaper, Adeena Malik, who was stocking the shelves behind the counter, turned and said, “Ah yes, Pastor Mitty. Today is Ash Wednesday.”

Mitty felt a little exposed by the greeting from the friendly woman who wore a colorful hijab. She and her husband Abbood had owned the store on Poplar Park’s main street for 10 years. After making small talk about February’s mild weather, Mitty said, “Adeena, I have a question that’s kind of personal. Do you feel self-conscious wearing a hijab here in the U.S.?”

A thoughtful frown came over Adeena’s face. 

“You know, back home almost all the women wear hijabs. Wearing a hijab there makes you fit in. It’s the women who don’t wear a headscarf who are noticed. So when we immigrated here, I did feel self-conscious, and I was tempted to stop wearing one. Abbood and I felt this need to convince everyone that we wanted to become real Americans, if you know what I mean.”

“So what made you decide to keep wearing one?”

Adeena replied, “It was partly because I remembered how angry I felt watching the reports about the Twin Towers on 9/11 on TV when we were still back home. I remembered how I felt and wanted to show everyone here that I’m a Muslim who doesn’t share the values of those terrorists. 

“Back home, the hijab is meant to modestly cover something up, but here it exposes my true self to the people I meet. You know, the word Islam means “surrender.” You have the same concept in Christianity, don’t you? If Allah is really my God, then my devotion to him is an essential part of who I am. Let your light shine before others is what you say, isn’t it?”

As Mitty walked out, he felt closer to the Muslim woman he had known for 10 years now yet sadly distant from her at the same time. He felt he shared with her a seriousness about, and devotion to, religion that he felt with only a few members of his own congregation.

As he turned the corner by the church, he saw his neighbor Michael Rosenthal raking the leaves and branches which were no longer hidden by banks of snow.

“Ah yes,” said Mitty’s friend in greeting, “Ash Wednesday. It’s funny. Lately I’ve been thinking about those orthodox Jews I see when I’m driving along Devon in Chicago, the ones with their fringes, sidelocks and fedoras. I don’t agree with their theology, but I admire their willingness to let people know what they stand for.”

“Great minds run in the same channels, Michael. I was just talking to Adeena at the mini-mart about wearing the hijab.”

Mitty went to his office and Michael finished raking his yard.

Let your light shine before others, Mitty thought. When he first came to Poplar Park, he did and said everything he could to climb down off the pastor pedestal which the old-timers always wanted their pastors to stand on. His desire was to fit in more than to stand out. “I’m your brother in Christ, not your father,” he used to remind them.

But Adeena, he thought as he washed off the smudge on his forehead while getting ready for bed, sticks out and at the same time fits in nicely.

He heard the voice inside him again, but this time it was saying, “You’re starting to get it.”