Rev. Kristofer Lindh-Payne

Rev. Kristofer Lindh-Payne of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Timonium aims to connect with people outside church walls through programs like Ashes to Go and other outreach efforts. (Staff photo by Brian Krista / March 4, 2014)

With a smudge of ash on his forehead and a friendly smile lighting up his face, the Rev. Kristofer Lindh-Payne will be spending Ash Wednesday greeting morning and evening commuters at the Ridgely Road light rail station.

After a hearty "Good morning," he will remind passersby that it's Ash Wednesday and offers to draw the traditional ash cross on their foreheads. An intimate ritual taking place in a public setting, it's an unusual way to start Christianity's solemn season of Lent. For Lindh-Payne, co-rector of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Timonium, it's a way to bring God to the street.

"It's out of the ordinary," he admitted. "It's meant to be conversational and gentle."

Ash Wednesday, which is tomorrow, is a day of introspection, as the priest prays, "From dust you have come and to dust you shall return."

"It's really pointing to God," the priest said. "I fall short. I'm broken. So I look to God."

Lindh-Payne first heard of Ashes to Go during a seminary class on creative preaching. He said the idea stuck with him even as he became associate rector of Epiphany. Quietly on Ash Wednesday 2011, he donned his black cassock, white surplice and black tippet and headed to the light rail station with his container of ashes.

"This felt like a call," he said, remembering that first Ash Wednesday. "A nudge to respond."

He's returned to the same light rail station every Ash Wednesday since. In 2013, people recognized him — and he recognized them. Lindh-Payne called it a "feeling of community."

He chose the Ridgely Road station because it has only one entrance. "I get to greet pretty much everyone," he said.

The imposition of ashes — really the ashes of last year's Palm Sunday palms — is an ancient Christian tradition to begin the 40 days of fasting and penance that lead to Easter Sunday.

Epiphany's light rail ministry takes this tradition out the churches and into people's daily lives, he said.

"For me this doesn't feel like a gimmicky thing at all," he said. "It's an opportunity to connect with people you might not ordinarily see."

During each of the past three Ash Wednesdays — this year is his fourth — he said he has been moved by his connections with people in a hurry.

Although some aren't interested in Ash Wednesday, Lindh-Payne said his presence serves as a reminder of the coming Lenten season. Some mention to him they'll be attending their own church. Others ask about Lent, or ashes. "Conversations around that have been very cool, too," he said.

Sometimes people pass him by and then return to ask him to pray for a loved one. On one particularly cold Ash Wednesday, someone brought him handwarmers.

Lindh-Payne said he always returns to the station for the afternoon commute. "That's my favorite part," he said. He'll recognize people he saw earlier in the day. "They are surprised when they are remembered," he said.

While he's at Ridgely, the Rev. Kathryn Wajda, Epiphany's co-rector, and several lay members of Epiphany will meet commuters at the Deereco Road light rail stops.

"I believe Ash Wednesday is an important day marking the beginning of Lent and reminding us of our mortality," Leslie Lobb, an Epiphany parishioner who lives in Parkton, said.

But she recognizes it can be difficult to get to church mid-week. "So we bring it to them," she said.

The response, she said, has been powerful.