‘Queer’-Affirming Student Group Sponsors Glitter Ashes on Ash Wednesday

An Episcopalian pastor distributed ashes and a Lutheran pastor attended in a show of support.

Student receiving ashes during a glitter ashes event at Fort Hays State University on Feb. 14, 2024.
Student receiving ashes during a glitter ashes event at Fort Hays State University on Feb. 14, 2024. (photo: Cristina Janney / Hays Post)

A student group at a public university in Kansas on Ash Wednesday sponsored a distribution of ashes mixed with glitter as “an inherently queer sign of Christian belief,” an annual event that some Catholic students see as a mockery of their faith.

“Get your ash on campus!” said the Facebook post for Glitter+Ash, an event sponsored by Us4U, a student group at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas, that calls itself “an inclusive, faith-based student organization focused on providing service.”

One participant said organizers were reacting against “a tradition of exclusion” in Christianity of people who are attracted to members of the same sex and people who identify with a gender other than the one that corresponds with their biological sex, according to Hays Post, a local news website.

An Episcopalian pastor distributed ashes and a Lutheran pastor attended in support, but a representative of a local Methodist church declined to participate after he learned the details of the event, Hays Post reported.

Some Catholic students at the school who took exception to the event saw it as a parody of Ash Wednesday, one of the holiest days of the Catholic liturgical calendar and the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. During Masses and other services at Catholic churches that day, a priest or other minister makes a cross on the foreheads of people who attend, out of ashes from burnt palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.

While certain other Christian denominations have a similar practice, distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday originated during the Middle Ages in the Catholic Church.

Comments on social media from opponents of the glitter ashes event at Fort Hays State described it as “disgraceful,” “outrageous,” and “beyond sickening.”

A member of the student group, reacting to criticism, posted a message on social media saying that the glitter ashes event “is not intended to offend, but to reach out to those on the margins of society, those who have often experienced hurt from the church, and invite them back into the loving embrace of God.”

“It is not a mockery of faith,” the unsigned statement said. “The Glitter+Ash is meant to highlight that hope in Christ is promised to ALL Christians.”

Distributing glitter ashes on Ash Wednesday has become common on some college campuses and elsewhere, including at a Lutheran-sponsored event at Marquette University several years ago.

The student group at Fort Hays State University said the event on Wednesday, which included the option of receiving plain ashes or ashes mixed with glitter, has been held since 2017. It previously did not draw much outside attention. But a mention of this year’s event was included in a mass-email message that went to every student at the school, which has a total registration of 12,843. That led to social media reaction and news stories.

Bishop Jerry Vincke, who heads the Diocese of Salina, which includes Fort Hays State University, told the Register the glitter ashes event misses the point of Ash Wednesday.

“The reception of ashes calls us to remember our earthly mortality and the gift of God’s Mercy when we repent and believe in the Gospel. We turn to our Lord in humility. Sadly, the ‘glitter ashes’ mentality seems quite the opposite,” Bishop Vincke said.

“We pray for those who feel compelled to insult faithful Catholics and our liturgical practices, and we naturally look for ways to somehow respond with charity. But we must always remember God’s ways are not our ways,” the bishop said.

The Catholic chaplain at Fort Hays State University, Father Andy Hammeke, told the Register he would like to speak to the organizers of the glitter ashes event to get more of an understanding of it.

“Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I’d imagine they’re coming from a perspective of giving a sign of Christianity to a group that feels it’s marginalized. And my response to that is: Anybody can receive ashes. Our doors are open,” Father Hammeke said.

He added: “To be clear, we are a Catholic church, and we will always stand with Church teaching. But anyone who comes through these doors will be met with love.”

The priest said he was busy all day on Ash Wednesday, celebrating three well-attended Masses in the chapel of Comeau Catholic Campus Center -- 12:30 p.m., 5:45 p.m., and a candlelight Mass at 8 p.m. – and that he heard 62 confessions that day,

“Ash Wednesday’s one of the greatest days of the year for campus ministry at a college, and we had a great day yesterday,” Father Hammeke said by telephone.

A Catholic student active in the campus ministry program told the Register she spoke with some of the organizers of the glitter ashes event and came away persuaded that they were not trying to mock the Catholic Church.

“I might not agree with the way that they try to access a community that is underserved, but I see that their intentions were good in trying to just show more kinds of people that may have been pushed out in the past that Christ loves them,” said Emily Schoeppner, 21, a senior from Wichita majoring in art education.

The Register on Thursday was unable to reach the Episcopalian pastor who distributed glitter ashes, the Lutheran pastor who attended the event, and the Methodist representative who didn’t attend. A representative of the student group that sponsored the event was not available for comment prior to publication.