Ashes to Go: how’d it go?

On the Christian Century’s blog, Amy Frykholm muses about Ashes to Go.

I am currently a homeless Christian, a wanderer without a congregation. The reasons for my homelessness are, like most homelessness, complex. Since I have no readily available religious community, I have been worrying endlessly over where and how to receive ashes this coming Wednesday. Every option seems fraught with difficulties and problems. Ashes to Go speaks to me with an innate appeal.

Two years ago, an Episcopal congregation in St. Louis offered Ashes to Go for the first time, and since then the idea has spread rapidly. Last year, 25 congregations offered ashes on the street in Chicago alone, and the offerings are rapidly multiplying at subway stations and bus stops all over the country.

The idea is to bring the church, with its rites and symbols, to the people–not to force anything on them, but because forgiveness, repentance, introspection, a moment of connection and quiet are needed everywhere. Bishop Jeff Lee, of the diocese of Chicago, recalls a woman, who, upon receiving ashes from him said that she never imagined that “the church would come out here to us.”

So, okay. We’re going to slow the pace down a little this morning and see if we can catch clergy (coming back into their offices and checking in on their mobile devices) that have been involved in this movement.

Are you doing Ashes to Go this year? Have you tried it before?

Naïve questions: Was it cold? How long were you on your feet? (Did you wear comfy shoes?) Did you ever feel embarrassed? Did anyone say or do anything mean? Did anyone do or say anything nice? Did anything unexpected or out of the ordinary happen?

More questions: Did it change the way you see Lent? Ash Wednesday? Prayer? Did it help to know there were others doing it at the same time throughout the country?

With about how many folks do you figure you interacted? Did you find yourself saying the same things over and over, or was it more conversational?

How did you encounter God today?

What are these questions missing that you’d like to add?

(If you have blogged about the experience, please feel free to share a link.)

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Category : The Lead

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  1. clare fischer-davies

    I am just back from an hour at the bus station in downtown Providence. I will be writing about it later this morning – but my initial response is that it was a sweeter and more tender experience than I’d expected – and very intimate.

  2. Lois Keen

    I have just returned from in front of Dunkin’ Donuts, which I had arranged with the manager. I will blog later but right now I am totally high. Last year I did drive-by blessings to people coming down the hill in front of the church, after the 7 a.m. service, and it was way more interactive than you might think – people signing themselves with the cross as I was signing them. This year was the same, only in a place with more foot traffic, so lots of drive-by blessings plus people receiving ashes. Yes, my hands were freezing. I’m going to get a pair of gloves and cut off the right thumb! And it was such a wonderful experience, to absolve and then to give ashes to people who came in such humility, that I think I shall stand outside the church again this morning after the 11 a.m. “inside” service!

  3. Link to my post about this morning. Grateful for the Cafe for prompting me to write sooner rather than later.

  4. I note a wholly different conclusion of opinions (though with all good intentions) on Fr. Tim’s blog today. Although, I mean, Ex opera operato, amiright?

    Torey Lightcap

  5. A Facebook User

    I must say that the good feelings that the priest had about giving out absolutions and ashes is a sorry basis for faith and leaves those receiving it with the idea that all rites and rituals are a form of mojo. Why not have drive-thru communions? Without a community of faith the imposition of ashes, baptisms, confirmations, and the celebration of the Holy Eucharist are about cheap grace and simply about people getting their felt-needs met and leaving people with the impression that such things are more important or necessary than knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and being mentored in the faith of the Church. Nice public relations, lousy evangelism-

    The Reverend Adrian A. Amaya; St. Mark the Evangelist Episcopal Church,; Syracuse, New York

  6. Ann Fontaine

    Perhaps having Ashes to Go – will bring more people to “come and see” as per Jesus’ call. I think it is a great idea. We are having our own version – (too rainy and windy to have ashes outside today) – all day welcome at the church for those who wish to drop in and Ashes delivered to shut-ins.

  7. Gregory Orloff

    With all due respect, Father Adrian, Jesus didn’t set up a building, open the doors and speak only to those who dared to come inside. No, he wandered the streets, spoke to people and touched them. No one is saying anything about doing away with community or catechism when it comes to faith, sacraments and commitment to Christ Jesus. However, “Ashes to Go” may be the only “invitation” or “gateway” to such things for some people, in a society increasingly oblivious to Lent (yet in dire need of it). It may be the only reminder some people get of God or mortality or need for self-examination, and just might get them into the doors of the church. Otherwise, to outsiders, even the most curious and spiritually hungry, all our liturgies in our churches and chapels, no matter how well advertised, just might seem like closed-door “private parties” they are afraid to “crash.” “Ashes to Go” removes that barrier, allows a point of contact and opens up the possibility of something deeper developing. And for that, may God be praised.

  8. Great start here in Erie! For us, pretty nice weather. Lots of support from our cathedral members for this, local media interest, and deep gratitude on the street from workers and students. OK to feel a little bit like a fool for Christ, encouraging the thought that we could find others ways to get outside the doors in ways that are congruent with our particular vocation and identity as Episcopalians.

  9. Robert M Berra

    A group of clergy and Berkeley Divinity School students were at the Stamford, CT train station this morning, with stations in the terminal, the sidewalk, and three platforms. We offered ashes, prayer cards, and intercessory prayer on the spot for all who were interested. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Many people were glad that they could begin Lent with Ash Wednesday, when they previously thought they would not be able to get to a church today.

  10. laurenstanley

    I’ve been in a discussion over on Facebook about Ashes to Go … and have to say, I think it’s a great idea that works well in many settings. If people can’t/won’t give the whole hour to the service, they can encounter Jesus where they are … and we can plant a seed in their minds.

    I think, Father Adrian, that we need to leave room for evangelism to happen in multiple ways. One size didn’t fit all when Jesus walked the earth, and it doesn’t fit all now.

    So go out there and ash away!

    Lauren R. Stanley

  11. Scott Lybrand

    I know this post was addressed to clergy, but I imposed ashes on the street with the Methodist congregation I’m currently attending, so I didn’t have to be clergy to participate.

    One young many approached me, somewhat aggressively, and asked if ashes were available ‘for all God’s children’. I think he honestly expected me to say that there were some types of people that aren’t welcome. I told him that anyone could receive ashes, that there were no barriers.

    “That’s not what the Catholic Church told me,” he said.

    I told him that I’m not a priest, and that I’m not Catholic, and then I handed him one of the church’s business cards that says “Gay and Straight Welcome”. He softened. I told him that my church believes that all people are welcome, and I’d love to talk with him further about it.

    He didn’t receive ashes, and maybe he’ll never set foot in a church. But I think that one interaction was worth the two hours I spent in the cold.

  12. I accompanied Bp. Jeff Lee outside St. James’ Cathedral here in Chicago and have to say that I observed some wonderful pastoral ministry happening. In many cases Bishop Jeff had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with each person after the prayers and imposition of ashes. I wouldn’t want to assume anything about the folks coming to Ashes to Go but would hazard a safe guess that many were folks on the way to work who didn’t have the luxury of stepping out for a traditional-length service but for whom this day–and its ritual–is still very important. One delightful family was on their way back home to Michigan after spending some vacation time here. The father brought three of his daughters to the 7:30am proper liturgy–they were several rows up from me–and then they came back–with Mom and baby sister in tow–to receive ashes for them before their departure. They were churched folks who appreciated having an alternative for marking this sacred day.

    My brother Adrian–I hear what you are saying and I long for everyone to meet the standard you set. But by that measure, when I think of all the ashes I’ve imposed in an actual sanctuary–many, many would not have measured up. (Blessings to you and all my friends back in the ‘Cuse!)

    Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Director of Networking, Diocese of Chicago

  13. Reid

    I got back about an hour ago from offering ashes on the Diag here on campus with my colleagues, the Rev. Sue Sprowls of Lord of Light Lutheran Campus Ministry, and the Rev. Bob Roth of the Wesley Foundation. It was cold and a bit snowy. A young Buddhist student asked Bob many questions about Ash Wednesday and Lent. I had wonderful-though-brief pastoral conversations with two students. Most students hurried by on their way to class or lunch, but each one of the many who stopped for ashes thanked us deeply and sincerely for being available to them. Tonight, the Ash Wednesday Liturgy in D Minor (the Saddest of All Keys) here at Canterbury House.

    Reid Hamilton, Chaplain, Canterbury House, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

  14. John Dornheim

    When I arrived on this campus a year and a half ago, Roman Catholic mass took up most of the good time in the Interfaith Center so I decided it would be “Ashes to Go” or, perhaps, “ashes wherever you happen to be.”

    Today, at Noon, I set up a little area in the dining hall/student center used mainly by commuters. For an hour and 15 minutes, I freely gave ashes to whoever asked, students, staff and visitors. People need to know that there is a door, or at least a window still open to them.

    At 1:15, I packed up and headed to the other Dining Hall where I was not quite as busy although a lot of the kitchen staff appreciated my presence (and I even got a free Lunch!).

    Knowing that I would be standing for two hours or so, I wore sneakers, clerics, and generic sick call stole. It is a great time, serving students and others who I normally might not. Afterwards, I was interviewed by the campus TV station. Oh, FWIW, I am a Lutheran with Episcopal overtones. If that matters. After all, we are all dust and to dust we shall return.

  15. John Dornheim

    PS: Two hours away, on her campus in New Paltz, my daughter was receiving “ashes to go” and I felt connected with her again.

  16. E B

    A friend of mind once held Mass on the beach, as the Sunday in question was beautiful and the AC had quit in the church. He told me later that he figured most passerbys would say, “What a dork,” but he was thrilled to have more than 200 people wander in.

    The following Sunday, with the AC back up and running, he had a record crowd in church, many of whom said, “I came because you took the time to come to me. I could tell that you care.” So, Ashes to Go sounds like a great idea, and a model to show that the church can be fun, vibrant and meaningful.

    Eric Bonetti

  17. Priscilla Cardinale

    I am so delighted to hear the good news from those who went out into the streets to be Jesus for the masses! Imagine — taking church to the people, just like Jesus and the apostles did. Imagine the power of holding a public baptism, eucharist, or evensong service where people can encounter the risen Christ in the real world.

    What a beautiful vision, indeed, and perhaps the key to true evangelism in the modern world. One of the biggest hurdles for many to overcome is walking through the sanctified doors of a traditional church, which holds many uncomfortable connotations for some, and here they have Jesus and his servants come to them where they live, work, and play.

    Sounds an awful lot like bringing about the Kingdom to me and an awful lot like Jesus having supper with tax collectors and adulteresses. Just sayin. . . .

  18. Elizabeth Kaeton

    I’m curious: Why is this a function of the ordained? Why is it that only deacons, priests and bishops impose ashes at train stations and bus stops? Isn’t this something that the laity can – and probably should – do?

  19. laurenstanley

    If I may comment again, hours later:

    I am wondering, after reading several posts elsewhere from folks who did not participate in Ashes to Go, why those folks think that those of us who either participated in or support Ashes to Go did not think long and hard about this? I keep seeing comments calling Ashes to Go “drive-by,” with the assumption that a short moment of grace is not as good as an hour-long moment of grace.

    I have traveled to many places in this country and in this world, and seen God’s power, front and center, even in the briefest of moments. I spent 2 minutes – TWO minutes – on the phone the other day with a woman who found out I am a priest and spontaneously told me about the funeral for one of her friends who died of cancer. The woman became teary – I could hear it in her voice. She then thanked me for listening to her. She needed an outlet for her grief, and I was that person (me being a priest simply set off the story). It was a moment of grace.

    I believe that Ashes to Go is not some sort of “trend” or “fad,” but rather a God-directed moment in which we in the Church go out into the world, naming God’s blessings. I don’t think God needs a full hour or more, nor vestments, nor pews, nor hymns, nor specific readings from the Scriptures (in whatever translations they might be). Erasmus was right: Bidden or unbidden, God is present. Everywhere. Full stop.

  20. Bob McCloskey


    Re: administration of ashes, as I suspect you are well aware, the BCP Ash Wednesday rite includes in the final rubrics on p. 269, the following: “In the absence of a bishop or priest, all that precedes may be led by a deacon or lay reader.” This begs the question of whether other laity may administer ashes but many clergy, myself included have interpreted it that way indoors as well as out. Thanks for the opportunity for a teachable moment to those who are unaware.

    Bob McCloskey

  21. Sara Miles

    We spent hours on Mission Street, going in taquerias and beauty parlors and restaurants to offer ashes for people who were working…one kitchen worker would tell the others, and they’d all come out to the dining room, or ask me to come back to the kitchen.

    We had a lot of very intense conversations, but what stuck with me was how many people said, “I need that” as we imposed ashes.

  22. Jim Pratt

    On imposition by laity: back in my university days (my 25th reunion was last year) we did Ash Wednesday jointly with the RCs, and the two chaplains designated a couple students to assist (a practical necessity for a congregation that numbered 200+). There is really nothing particularly priestly about it that would restrict the role to the ordained.

  23. Thanks to The Rev. Mary Vano, St. Margaret’s, Little Rock, we became active this year with “Ashes to Go” or “Ash Wed. on the go” in the Diocese of Ark. St. Michael’s, Little Rock, set up in a nearby shopping center between Chipotle and Chic-fil-a restaurants (with support from both). Being smack dab in the Bible Belt, we didn’t know what to expect as far as reactions and participation, but we were amazed! 62 people came for ashes and/or a prayer (in the windy but beautiful sunny and 70-something degree weather) between 7:30a and 5:30p. They were young and old; black, white and brown; evangelical, orthodox, and unchurched. They were to the very last person, spiritually hungry and deeply grateful. Grover came from Channel 4 to do a story, but we prayed over him and imposed ashes first (for which he gave deep thanks) [for the story – Generally, lay folk would pray the prayer (that was on the bookmark that we gave those who received) from the BCP, “Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior.” A priest (Episcopal or Ecumenical Catholic) would impose the ashes. Word spread like wildfire, by mouth, facebook and email. We had only one sceptic, who eventually received both ashes and a prayer. Many stayed, asked questions, and told their stories. A few who were really on the go didn’t even get out of their vehicles. A couple offered donations. There is no doubt that it was a God-thing and a highly evangelical event for all involved. Thanks be to God!

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