Religious tolerance: Lessons from Ash Wednesday

When William McLeod, a fourth grader at Valley View Elementary School in Bountiful, Utah, was told to wipe off the ashes from his forehead on Ash Wednesday, March 6, the reaction by Catholics and other Christians in the predominantly Mormon community was understandably critical.

McLeod told Salt Lake City’s Fox 13 TV that he is the only Catholic at his public elementary school, which is located three miles from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) temple in Bountiful, one of Utah’s most predominantly LDS communities.

“She took me aside and she said, ‘You have to take it off,” McLeod told Fox 13. “She gave me a disinfection wipe — whatever they are called — and she made me wipe it off.” After McLeod’s parents complained to Valley View’s principal, his teacher, Moana Patterson, was put on leave by the Davis County School District and told not to talk about the incident.

The incident, however, grabbed the headlines — locally and nationally. The following Monday, a news conference was held at the Utah State Capitol, with Patterson and State Sen. Todd Weiler, who represents the Bountiful area, in attendance. “This is something that happens when people aren’t necessarily exposed to other cultures and religions,” Weiler said at the news conference, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

During the March 11 news conference, Patterson said she mistook the ashes for dirt, and did not know the ashes were a religious symbol.

“When I learned it was a sacred symbol for Ash Wednesday, I immediately apologized to the boy and his family,” she said. Even in Utah, where Catholics make up only 5 percent of the population, according to the Pew Research Center, not knowing about the Ash Wednesday tradition seems unbelievable, especially in this era of Google and social media, where people post “selfie” photos of themselves with ashes using the hashtag #Ashtag.

While regrettable, incidents like these can serve as teaching moments. Utah’s LDS community can use this incident as an opportunity to expose their members to other cultures and religions. There is also a larger teachable moment about religious tolerance here for all of us.

In recent years, Muslims, Jews and black Christians have been targets of hate messages that have led to violence. In 2015, Dylann Roof, a self-avowed white supremacist, murdered nine black worshippers inside a Charleston, S.C., church. In 2017, white nationalists marched through the University of Virginia in Charlottesville shouting “Jews will not replace us.” In 2018, a gunman killed 11 Jewish worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue while shouting anti-Semitic words. This year, on March 15, 50 Muslims were gunned down inside two mosques in New Zealand by a terrorist who posted a 73-page manifesto with anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and white supremacist references.

What begins as a snide or insulting remark about immigrants, refugees or non-Christians — such as Fox News host Jeanine Pirro’s recent comments about Minnesota’s Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s use of a hijab, or head cover, as “antithetical to the United States Constitution” — can snowball into hateful acts.

This Lent, as part of our focus on fasting from sin, let us call to mind the words of Pope Francis at the International Meeting for Peace in 2013: “Each one of us is called to be an artisan of peace, by uniting and not dividing, by extinguishing hatred and not holding on to it, by opening paths to dialogue and not by constructing new walls!”