'Ashes to Go' seeks to broaden reach of message outside church
Carrying a little bowl of ashes in the frigid Wednesday morning of a Mt. Lebanon March last year, the Rev. Michelle Boomgaard approached commuters at the town's T stop with an invitation:
“Would anyone like ashes or a prayer in observance of Ash Wednesday?” the bubbly Episcopal priest asked.
Some obliged, some did not, but it was the asking, the meeting, that mattered. Ash Wednesday is meant to be a beginning, she said, and sometimes the best way to start something new is by meeting people where they are.
“The idea is that this is not the total of your Lenten observance ... this is an invitation to a deeper experience,” said Boomgaard, a priest at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon.
Clergy will again take their invitation to the streets this year in what's become an annual “Ashes To Go” ministry on Ash Wednesday for those who can't make it to church or are unfamiliar with the day and its place in the Christian Lenten season. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period before Easter, when Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead after crucifixion. Ashes are meant to be a symbol of mortality, and traditionally come from the burned palm branches from Palm Sunday celebrations the year before.
“The principle behind it is pretty simple, which is bearing the proclamation of mercy and love that is at the core of Jesus' ministry to the streets,” said the Right Rev. Dorsey McConnell, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. “This is a sign of our commitment to walking on the road with people as they search for God, and we're there for them and to walk with them.”
McConnell encouraged priests to meet people outside church for Ash Wednesday when he arrived in town in late 2012, and the tradition has grown among Pittsburgh Episcopalians since. This will be his third year crossing foreheads with ash in Market Square, Downtown, and he said more people come to greet him each year.
Spreading ashes on the foreheads of those on the street has become a common Ash Wednesday tradition in the Episcopalian (Anglican, in England), Methodist and Lutheran denominations nationwide, who often offer church services throughout the day, church officials said.
“God is present whether you are walking down the street, riding the bus or grabbing a sandwich at lunch,” said the Rev. Tom Parkinson, pastor of Faith United Methodist Church in Fox Chapel, who will take ashes to the streets of Sharpsburg on Ash Wednesday.
“This is a way to connect with the community and invite all to join in.”
Roman Catholic parishes offer a wealth of Masses on Ash Wednesday but do not mark foreheads outside of its church liturgy.
“People think there's something magical or special about the ashes, but really what they are (meant) to be (is) an external sign of what is internally taking place,” said the Rev. Jim Gretz, director of the Department for Worship for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. “Doing that within a context, be it Mass or a liturgy of the word service ... further amplifies, explains (that).”
But reaching folks outside of a church service can complement the theological significance of the day, church members said.
“It helps us to remember that we are children of God,” said June Hanrath of Mt. Lebanon. She plans to attend St. Paul's for her ashes on Wednesday, but said coming alongside people is a key. “To have somebody out there, willing to expend a couple minutes talking to them is important.”
Jim Stafford spent his Friday afternoon in St. Paul's kitchen, delicately carving meatloaf for the hungry at the Severe Weather Emergency Shelter Downtown. He plans to return Wednesday for church, and said “Ashes to Go” makes the holiday accessible.
“I'm glad we do this. It reaches out to people who don't understand it or don't have time,” he said.
Ministers and a host of volunteers will take ashes to about 80 homebound parishioners of Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Greensburg on Ash Wednesday, church officials said.
“For the most part, they all want ashes,” said Sandi Kocian, the pastoral associate who coordinates the program.
When Boomgaard approached folks with “Ashes to Go” last year, she wanted to show that one-time ash-dabbing wasn't the point.
So she asked them to coffee, then sat in a nearby cafe, waiting for those who might want to chat more.
“I wanted to have that gesture of putting ashes on someone's head to be an invitation, ‘look, we're around whatever that process that has begun by putting ashes on your head …if you want to have more of that, here are some ways you can do it,' ” she said. “This is an opportunity to draw nearer to God.”
Boomgaard won't be on the street distributing this year — she'll be visiting a nursing home instead. But another priest will be — standing at the Mt. Lebanon T stop, with the same invitation and little bowl of ashes, to go.
Staff writers and Craig Smith Tawnya Panizzi contributed. Katelyn Ferral is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5627 or firstname.lastname@example.org.