Ashes on the go

Updated. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. The imposition of ashes is a powerful symbol of our “mortality and penitence” and a powerful reminded of our need for God. We have heard of several churches in Chicago and St. Louis who have found ways of bring the ancient rite to busy places where people live and work.


A story in the Chicago Tribune tells of the Rev. Lane Hensley of the Church of the Transfiguration in Palos Park, Illinois came out in the early morning to the commuter rail station and distributed ashes to commuters on their way to work.

Then we heard that two other Chicago priests, the Rev. Emily Mellott, of Calvary Episcopal Church in Lombard, IL, and the Rev. George Smith of St. Mark’s in Glen Ellyn, who had the same idea (independently of each other!) and acted on it. Mellot described her experience:

I was pretty sure we’d be well-received by commuters, and we certainly were. Lots of folks asked variations on “do those work for Catholics, too??”

I’d originally thought that if we didn’t crash and burn, I’d invite the local clergy association to do ecumenical ashes next year, but it was such a good experience for the five (5!) lay people (ranging from 15 to 65+) who got up early to do ashes with me that I want to make sure there’s always room for our lay volunteers.

She also said:

I thought of this as a service to our immediate neighbors – people like those of my parishioners who told me that they wanted to wear their ashes all day, since they rarely have such a way to wear their faith – but can’t be at church and commute at the same time. But it turned out to be a matter of real public interest, and even debate about where the church belongs and how we meet God.

Smith said his effort in Glen Ellyn, IL, was an Episcopal and Lutheran joint venture. Two clergy from St. Mark’s, two from Faith Lutheran. They set up near the Metra station, across from Starbucks with a table draped in purple with a cross and they handed out a flyer about Lent with information about their two churches.

In St. Louis, another ecumenical effort called “Ashes to go” provided the imposition of ashes for those who work downtown. A story on the Diocese of Missouri website describes how this came about.

Ashes-to-Go is an ecumenical, short, Ash Wednesday service with imposition of ashes held on the corner of Grand and Arsenal streets in St. Louis. Now in its fourth year, clergy and laity from St. John’s Episcopal Church-Tower Grove participate. “South Grand neighborhood in the City of St. Louis is a perfect place to bring church to the streets,” says the Rev. Teresa Danieley, rector at St. John’s-Tower Grove….

The initial idea for Ashes To Go arose from a session of an ecumenical clergy Bible study group that Danieley attends weekly. The clerics were discussing differences in sacraments, and about how both Roman Catholics and Protestants may receive the imposition of ashes. “So, we were joking about doing an “Ashes Drive Thru” and then we thought, well why not? We have a great business district. And it is a way to bring church to the streets. As Christians we are called to GO and make disciples and to show God’s love to everyone. We are doing Ashes to Go in order to provide a unique opportunity to pause, to mark our mortality, and celebrate the blessings of this life – even in the midst of a busy work day,” said Danieley.


Hensley talked with us about his experience at the commuter rail platform via e-mail.

We asked him why he thought people responded as they did:

That’s easier to answer after the fact than it would have been immediately before. We showed up with a box full of ERD Lenten Meditation books and some written materials (see attached). My anxiety level was very high, irrationally so. I was worried that no one would do it, and that I’d just look foolish. I also was a little worried that someone might be so offended that they would complain to Metra (the train line), and that Metra might even call the police. I’m the police chaplain in Palos Park, and greased the wheels on that front by speaking ahead of time to the cop who was scheduled to be the “officer in charge” of that shift and make sure he assigned himself to the beat that covers the Metra station. He’s a friend, and I knew he wouldn’t actually arrest me!

My anxiety was completely misplaced. People were really into it. They were grateful. Some talked about long lines at churches downtown that they now could avoid, and others clearly had no intention of getting ashes, but were really into the idea of doing it on the train platform. I think the ashes themselves are a powerful symbol of an internal reality. People respond to

the ashes because they name a condition that people know is true. At some times, I worry that the ashes are a way of “disfiguring your faces, as the hypocrites do,” but that worry presupposes that people wear ashes as a sign of spiritual pride. I don’t think they do. I think they wear ashes, ironically, as a way of coming clean. It’s like the early steps of AA that

involve an acknowledgment of reality and powerlessness.

I love the Ash Wednesday liturgy, but sometimes I think it’s beating a dead horse: People come to get the ashes because they already know they need them. Offering them on the train platform feels like welcoming home the prodigal son. I think people responded because we offered it as a gift and not as another responsibility. Most people actually lit up and looked joyful

when we asked if they wanted the ashes, and some even looked very relieved. A couple of people teared up. Almost everyone thanked us. The lady at the coffee concession was Greek Orthodox, and although their Lent hasn’t started yet, she was thrilled by it, and kept giving us free refills.

What did you say to them?

“Good morning. Would you like to get your ashes?”

“Remember that thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return.”

“Thank you — Have a great morning.”

And we answered their questions.

Did you just stand by the sign and wait for people?

No. We moved around, but mostly hovered around one door because almost everyone passed through it. The door we chose was between the parking lot pay boxes and the coffee stand. Ninety percent of the passengers passed within 10 feet of us. We moved around when we saw groups of people who didn’t seem to realize we were there. If I had it to do over again, I wouldhave ditched the sign. When you’re 6′ 5″ and stand in a giant Batman-esque

purple chasuble on Ash Wednesday morning, people know why you’re there. The sign was overkill.

What was your most memorable moment?

There were a few. A couple of people declined the ashes after asking where we were from and determining that I wasn’t Roman Catholic. My organist was helping me, and one woman let him give her ashes because he’s Roman Catholic. Whatever works. One guy identified himself as Baptist and asked why we put ashes on people’s foreheads. I talked about ashes as a sign of repentance, and said that the forehead is where we acknowledge our mortality on the same spot where we’re sealed [for resurrection] by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.

The first time a train stopped to pick up passengers, the conductors got off and asked for ashes, which I didn’t expect at all. When a train pulls away, it makes quite a wind, and that almost blew away my ashes. I clapped my hand down on top just in time.

As we were working on the last departing train we intended to serve, my cell phone rang, and I let it roll to voice mail. When we hit a lull, I listened to the message, and it was John, my friend from the police department. He was calling to let me know that a woman in town, the mother of some friends of mine, had just died and that the police and ambulances were at the house.

As I hung up on the call, John walked up on the train platform. He knew I was there, and was coming to let me know personally because he wanted to be sure I had the message. As if the ashes themselves weren’t enough of a reminder of our mortality, that one got my attention. A parishioner died later in the morning. It was a busy day of remembering and responding to


Most memorable for me, though, was the look on people’s faces. They were surprised, and they were pleased. It felt incredibly intimate to me. It felt like standing on holy ground, like being caught in the middle between a God who wants so much to embrace and welcome his beloved, and people who so urgently want to be found and welcomed home.

Here is a fascinating discussion on WGN-AM “John Williams” radio show. What do you think of “ashes on the go?”

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  1. Paul Woodrum

    One Ash Wednesday morning sometime ago my RC colleague and I met at the local hospital bringing ashes to hospitalized parishioners. So many visitors and staff also asked for ashes that we divided the turf, he standing by one door and I by the other, and spent the next two hours passing out ashes before we both had to get back to our respective altars for noon services. No one raised a question about the denominational affiliation of the ashes.

    I’m curious why one would wear an alb and chasuble at the RR station to distribute ashes. Wouldn’t a cassock and stole be more appropriate?

  2. Lane Hensley

    Yes it would have. Oh well.

  3. Gregory

    I don’t know about more appropriate, but the alb and chasuble in public is definitely striking. “The Church is here, in the world, among the people.” There’s no mistaking it. What an impression! Bravo.

    As for the Greek Orthodox coffee lady, I have to smile. Orthodox Christians began Lent on the Monday before Ash Wednesday. It already started… : )

    Gregory Orloff

  4. Peter Pearson

    Now THIS is what we’re supposed to be about (regardless of what we wear). How exciting. I wish we had a train station in my town.

  5. John B. Chilton

    R.E. “what not to wear” (if I can coin a phrase): Has this thread been highjacked by Episcopalians?

    More seriously, this is a great story. What are the “train stations” in your town? The breakfast drive through at MacDonalds perhaps? The public pedestrian bridge? Outside Starbucks?

  6. College campuses? I think that would be a great place to set up shop.

  7. Michael Cudney

    I find the idea of Ash Wednesday Lite more than a little disturbing. The imposition of ashes divorced from the liturgy for the day, particularly the Liturgy for Penitence, diminishes the impact of what is intended for the beginning of the Lenten season. Surely in these two large cities there would be a variety of service times at different churches available for those wishing to attend. Ash Wednesday should, I believe, be about kneeling and praying and preparing ourselves for the Resurrection. It’s more than just a smudge on the forehead.

  8. Lane Hensley

    If you buy the cheap grace argument, sure. The theory, I guess, is that smug ne’er-do-well gets all the rights and privileges of a dirty forehead without doing our bidding first. See Mark 9:38 and Luke 15:28-29. I totally agree that it’s more than just a smudge on the forehead. And I hope that one of these days some of these sheep wander back with the other 99. But I think Jesus would have gone after them.

  9. I think “ashes on the go” is a lovely idea. Truly, I believe we’ll be doing church like that more often. With the numbers of people who attend religious services dimishing, if the people don’t come, then perhaps we should go to the people. Sort of like Jesus.

    June Butler

  10. We don’t know what sort of interior conversation is going on for those who received ashes – they may have been bending the knees of their hearts – I guess this is one of those sowing moments – some ashes will fall on fertile ground, some will fall among brambles, some on the hard cement. God gives the grace nevertheless.

  11. Christopher Hayes

    Several of our South-of-Market congregations in San Francisco (including Holy Innocents in Noe Valley) have teamed up to offer ashes in recent years at the BART stations in the Mission District. My commute takes me on a different train (and of course I always go to the full liturgy at my own congregation, Grace Cathedral), but I understand that it is always well received.

    Christopher Hayes

  12. Sara Miles

    Yes, this year churches from the South of Market area were on the street again– both in the morning and the afternoon. We stood at subway stations, but the most amazing part was just walking into McDonalds, taquerias, beauty salons, bakeries, and offering ashes (in English and Spanish) to all the people working there and to customers.

    My favorite was imposing ashes on an entire row of ladies getting their hair done!

    Sara Miles

  13. paigeb

    If you buy the cheap grace argument, sure. The theory, I guess, is that smug ne’er-do-well gets all the rights and privileges of a dirty forehead without doing our bidding first.

    So is that what happened on Wednesday when I took time out of a VERY busy schedule to attend service? I “did [someone’s] bidding” so that I could have “all the rights and privileges of a dirty forehead”?

    Thanks for clearing that up, Fr. Hensley. There I was, thinking that I had made the time to work on my relationship with God–in the same way that I make the time to work on my marriage and my relationship with my children. I didn’t realize that I was being manipulated when I took part in the liturgy.

    I’m still not sure what “rights and privileges” I was supposed to get for my dirty forehead, though. Can you enlighten me?

    Paige Baker

    P.S. I believe grace is available to all persons at all times. But I have found that entering into relationship with God and others in my community of faith helps me to experience it a lot better. YMMV, of course.

  14. The Diocese of Missouri has a 4-minute video of last year’s St. Louis event with the Rev. Danieley. As folks will see, it did include a shortened version of the liturgy. Not just “drive-by ashes.”

  15. No one is attacking your choice. But you have the knowledge needed to make the choice –the people on the train platform might not have that information. Eldad and Medad come to mind. Numbers 11 in this situation.

  16. Christopher Hayes


    It is more than just a smudge on the forehead. But don’t be too quick to judge those who can’t even bring themselves to come into church, and yet seek God’s mercy. (See Luke 18:9-14.)

  17. Emily Mellott

    A very similar conversation about appropriateness and “cheap grace” took place on Chicago talk radio on Wednesday (touched off by the ashes at the Lombard train station, and linked above). And it’s something I spent some time with before we went out to the train station. One of the things I considered was the place of the ashes in our liturgy for Ash Wednesday. We receive them before we begin that litany of penitence – our communal act of repentance is a response to the rich symbolic reminder of the ashes, not a precondition.

    One can truly, if not routinely, repent and seek God’s forgiveness on the train, boarding with those ashes on your forehead. And, after all, one can participate in the entire litany and liturgy without truly repenting. As the gospel appointed for Ash Wednesday reminds us, it’s the “secret” turning to God of our hearts, minds, and actions that God judges and responds to – not the outward form that gets all the attention!

  18. paigeb

    Ann–I shouldn’t have been snide in response to a snide remark. (So much for my Lenten discipline! 😉

    I doubt many of those who comment here would accuse Fr. Hensley of “cheap grace” for offering ashes in the train station. The concerns I see are about what it means to offer the symbols outside the community of faith which gives them their meaning and power. And about what it means when people are “too busy” for God, or too afraid to come into the church—but still feel that need or hunger for a brush with the Transcendent.

    I saw the hunger on the faces of those Fr. Hensley “marked”—I want to see them fed too. But I know from experience that the rich food and drink of the Gospel are found INSIDE the community of faith. What is gleaned from the margins is pretty thin gruel. I had no idea how thin it was until I came in from the cold myself.

    If Fr. Hensley’s actions bring people in from the cold, that’s a good thing. I also think it’s a good thing that people are stepping up to say that community and liturgy are important. I guess we will always be trying to resolve the tension between the need to meet people where they are and to call them into relationship–with the effort and commitment that requires.

    Paige Baker

  19. Kathryn Jensen

    I am reminded of this:

    “Beyond congregationalism. Most studies of religion assume that identifiable religious organizations, and in particular congregations, are the natural home for the production and transmission of religious identity and expression. Leaders, administrative structures, religious schools, various organizational connections, and the like are generally posed as the production-engines of religion. Notwithstanding their obvious importance, a review of “religion” as embedded solely in institutional contexts has many problems. As scholars of non-Christian religions in the US and abroad note, it places emphasis on particular kinds of collective forms and structures at the expense of others; likewise, it ignores the degree to which religion in many forms is actively produced in secular institutions.

    As increasing numbers of sociologists highlight, religious life takes place not only inside the walls of the mosque or the church, but is also enacted in the workplace, in the schoolyard, on the bus, and in the hospital. In a number of studies, religion is not just “lived” or “enacted” but is, rather, observed as actively produced within (and sometimes by) “secular” institutions. In such instances neither the congregation nor any other religious institution emerges as the primary space where religious practice is carried out.” From – The New Sociology of Religion.

    While this article addresses the study of religion, it like many others at The Immanent Frame, points out that the notion of religion trespassing on “secular” ground – indeed the very notion that religion exists as a thing apart – is a peculiarly Western notion. What strikes me as marvelous about imposition of ashes on the street is that it ignores those boundaries and dares to allow individual religious action in public, rather than just as members of a crowd of spectators watching a parade or festival. One still must come forward and seek and accept the ashes. What could be more moving and potentially life-changing? I would hazard a guess that it means just as much if not more than those wrapped up in a series of intellectualized exercises – in any event, there is no way for anyone to know from the outside.

    Anyone who has attended AA or Al-Anon meetings will be familiar with those who approach the Twelve Steps very studiously. While structured reading, writing, and reflection certainly are important aids to some, as are group discussion and support, people do not always change their lives simply by following a program or by perfecting the procedure – in fact for some, it is a way of hiding from what needs most to be done. To stand, to confess one’s powerlessness, to pledge to and make amends to those one has harmed, and to turn one’s life over to one’s Higher Power does not necessarily require deep study or long periods of reflection, nor does living the changes require ducking into a church, temple, mosque, etc. before one can make the commitment or even to first acknowledge what amendment of life is necessary.

    While I now find ritual important and necessary, especially as part of a religious community, I only finally decided to step into a church to explore and participate when I got over my fear and loathing of the gatekeepers of the institution and what it might mean to step inside and possibly start thinking of myself as different from those on the outside. Being touched on the forehead by a gentle hand rather than pounded with Bible verses or assaulted with admonitions that one cannot not be saved unless one says or does all the right things with the approval of the right people — I can’t imagine what could better draw people in. To show people that it is o.k. to pause, even a short while, to let one be touched by a stranger, and to accept it with humility and perhaps curiosity, and to not be afraid to feel remorse – what could be more wonderful than that?

  20. Kathryn Jensen

    To respond to Paige’s point – yes, community is important, but I think we’re long past the time when people could be enticed into joining communities with the promise that is the only way to get the “real” thing. People know better, or at least know that what’s inside those communities is not necessarily so great. Beyond the scandals of clergy abuse, there also remains the divisions, theological and personal, and the not-so-clear benefit of joining a group that often seems, at least to outsiders, to be mostly concerned about raising money for who knows what purposes and then telling people that they are not good enough for this or that. That’s the perception of people outside the church, those with little or only vague memories of church attendance and sometimes even actual, painful experiences, of their own. To counter that negativity and fear with a clergy person in the street, one who is not asking questions, giving tests, or telling them they don’t “know” enough to properly repent and it won’t count unless they are card-carrying members of an established community, is… well, IMO, positively brilliant. The worst that can happen is that a few people do it partly as a lark and feel a bit foolish with ashes smeared across their forehead, while others may just not know what to make of it, and still others are taking the baby step of stepping forward and making a religious gesture, something they’ve never done before. It’s not like handing out communion bread and wine in the subway (although I’m not sure that would bring the world to an end, either). Imposition of ashes is a lot easier to understand than the Body and Blood of Christ Present in the Bread and Wine. So why not show people it’s not so scary and that perfectly normal people are doing it out in the open? I honestly don’t get what all the fuss is about. Do ashes really need a tabernacle and a rubric?

  21. Rebecca Wilson

    “Most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow.”

    –Flannery O’Connor, as quoted by Kathleen Norris in The Cloister Walk

  22. paigeb

    Kathryn–is the church necessary for anything then? Other than for our own personal predilections and pleasures?

    That is a serious question, not a snarky one.

    I grew up in a fundamentalist church that was much as you described. It is a wonder that I ever came back to church at all after I left it. And when I did return, I was a weird one—not even a “Christmas and Easter Christian,” but *strictly* an Ash Wednesday one. I would come to church once a year to get my ashes, and then sneak off to do my fasting alone. There was never an Easter or a Resurrection for me.

    But I actually came to church. Made the effort, even though I didn’t want to be involved. Felt the tug of liturgy and community, even when I didn’t really want to…

    I certainly came to the church by “a means the church does not allow.”

    And now, 14 years later, I still feel the “pull.” Have learned the value of being in community. Recognize that I cannot do this alone.

    I don’t see the church as some kind of club, with rules about who is in and who is out–my experience of the Episcopal Church has never been that. It is quite possible that my views have been shaped by the fact that the 4 parishes with which I have been affiliated have NEVER treated people the way you describe, or the way my church of origin did.

    What I want is to welcome the hungry, without giving up what it is that makes us CHURCH–the liturgy, the music, the symbolism, the community. A lot of people think we need to make ourselves “relevant”–I think we need to make ourselves KNOWN. Who we are. What we believe. What is required of those who are called.

    Ashes on the train platform may well be a good start. But they are not sufficient. What comes next? How do we feed the hungry without giving up that which makes us church?


    Paige Baker

  23. tgflux

    Whereas in Britain, all knowledge of this seems to have gone, um, ashes-to-ashes…

    JC Fisher

    [If you listen to the end of the clip—yes, VP Biden isn’t the most interesting speaker in the world—the British newscaster actually makes a correction, and apologizes]

  24. Kathryn Jensen

    “Is the church necessary for anything then?” I’d like to say, of course it is, but honestly, I’m not sure, or rather, I do not think it is for me to decide.

    Paige, I’m very much with you on the value of community and wanting to join with and share with others the best of the Anglican tradition of liturgy, music, and discipline has to offer. But I also recall what I thought and felt about organized religion during the decades I spent away from church, and I see much of the same wariness in many of my children’s unchurched friends and their parents. A few have visited our church and have not come back. It may be they need or want something different. But regardless, I do not think we are going to turn the cultural tide back towards religion unless there is more willingness to let it permeate our everyday lives in the West, to make people more comfortable with ritual and religious practice once again, especially in the public sphere, instead of being apologetic or staying away entirely out of fear of fundamentalism, fanaticism, and clericalism.

    I think there is a very big difference between cramming all religious observances or rituals into a fast-food dispensing style, and going into the streets and offering ashes at the beginning of Lent. It is not at all to replace what goes on in church, nor is it likely to discourage anyone from “standing in the long lines” in church or taking time for a proper mass. Having spent decades as a Christmas and Easter Christian, I can attest to the fact that I certainly never thought that was somehow “enough” – rather it is how I kept some tenuous connection to the religious practices of my childhood until I was ready to put aside my fears and go back and see if there was some way I could “do it” without losing my mind and my better judgment.

    Seems to me that if we are going to try to cajole (if it ever does any good) people into attending more often, in doing a “proper” Lent and full Holy Week topped off by Easter Vigil (or just plain taking Holy Communion at least once a week), we should do it with folks who have already stepped across the threshold and have started to forge bonds with the community. With people both in and outside the church, there still is some hesitation to put aside their notions about belief and faith as matters of assent and intellectual exercise (see especially Harvey Cox’s recent book, on faith vs. belief and the whole larger past trend in Christianity away from mystery and ritual following the Reformation). Some people simply have to take it slowly when it comes to ritual and discipline, and some will never take, but to deny people on the grounds that the denial will teach them that they must dive into the full stream or go dry, is, I think, foolhardy in this instance.

    Although I will fight and have fought like a tiger to keep traditional forms of liturgy, theology, and practice in the parishes I have attended, that is out of a desire to keep more traditional Anglicanism there as an important option, as well as living history. For the world at large, all that matters to me is that people learn to be open again to adopting a religious identity and practices that can see the full light of day in the public square, at home and in the workplace, as a way of living one’s communal way of making sense of the mystery, without resorting to theocracy or otherwise using religion as a cudgel to advance social and political agendas. It needs to be o.k. again to walk around with a sign of the cross smudged on one’s forehead, and I think that’s well worth the occasional, sheepish or outlandish comment about not being able or willing to get one’s ashes any other way. Those who are truly thirsty will come and drink more.

  25. Paul Woodrum

    Speaking of boundries,for as long as I can remember, Trinity Church at the head of Wall Street in New York City has provided ashes for those who just walk through the doors and out again as well as for those who attend all or part of Ash Wednesday liturgies.

  26. Part of what seems to be lost in this online discussion (and several others) is a thorough appreciation of who most of these people are encountering these ash-dispensing clerics.

    A generation or more ago, a lot of them would have been people who woould have known it was Ash Weddnesday and who had made a more or less conscious decision (even if by default) not to go to Church.

    That was Christendom.

    This is post-Christendom.

    Most of the people on those train platforms and at those bus stops will have been people for whom organized religion is an alien thing, and whose limited experience of organized religion has been judgemental pronouncements from wealthy white men on television.

    Yet, if the demographic studies are to be believed, they are also people searching and yearning for spiritual meaning in their lives. But for most of them, the decaying temples of organized religion would seem the last place to look for spiritual meaning.

    They didn’t decide not to go to Church for Ash Wednesday. It never occured to them to go.

    While I have great sympathy for the concerns expressed about cheap grace or about the barrenness of symbols detached from context, I believe those concerns are outweighted by the imperative that we do as Jesus did: Go to meet people where they are.

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