'Ashes To Go' offers Lenten ritual on the streets

Baltimore locations offer ashes on the run for folks with busy Ash Wednesday schedules.

Armed with two pairs of socks, woolen vestments, a glove worn on one hand and heat packs in the other, Father Rev. Ken Saunders, was ready to perform the Ash Wednesday ritual.

The Trinity Episcopal Church priest has spent now four Ash Wednesdays standing outside the church along an Allegheny Avenue curb, where he performed a drive-through service to Christians wanting to participate in the Lenten ritual while on the go. Some passed by on foot, while others chose to remain inside their warm cars, simply rolling through the church driveway to receive their ashes.

"We're making ways to offer connection in their everyday life. It's a way they can still engage in church without going to sit in the pew," Saunders said. It's "a way to get back," and involved in church. "I think it makes it really accessible."

Ashes To Go, offered by Episcopal and Methodist churches throughout the country since 2007, according to the website ashestogo.org, provides areas where people can get the ash cross on their forehead before heading off to work or school, rather than heading into church.

Despite being the coldest day in the four years he's done the curbside service, "I enjoy doing it," Saunders said Wednesday morning.

"This year has been the worst," he said of the weather. "The first year I did this, it was like spring."

But Saunders came prepared. His right hand was bare to rub ash onto foreheads, but he kept his hands warm using small hand held heat packs. "I always dress in layers," he said. He stuck out his foot and pointed, saying that underneath a pair of dark dress socks, he made sure to wear an extra, thicker pair.

He put the ashes in a Tupperware container because it doesn't get as cold as a porcelain container he said lasted year, he said.

Many people streamed past Saunders' post Wednesday with coffees in hand, headed to the Circuit Courthouse or the nearby county offices. While about 30 people stopped to get the cross on their foreheads, some simply just said hello, one group asked for directions to the courthouse.

In West Baltimore, the Rev. Charles S. Mercer waited outside a North Avenue fire station in the afternoon, stepping aside as ambulances passed out of the brick building.

Mercer, rector at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, chose the location because it gets more foot traffic compared to his Walbrook Avenue church, he said. But this Ash Wednesday — his third Ashes To Go event — he hadn't had many people stop.

He didn't mind. "Just that we are visible in the community means a lot," he said. "I really think that's what a lot of churches need to start doing."

Unlike Saunders at the Towson church, Mercer had the afternoon sun to keep him warm. He wore a long tan coat but stood out on the busy corner with his bright purple stole.

He said he's had youngsters pass by who said they didn't know about Lent or the ashes ritual, but in the past some have come to the church after meeting him on the street.

"That was very refreshing. It made it worthwhile," he said. Mercer said moving out to the street and becoming more accessible is a good thing. "I think it makes the ritual more powerful.

"Jesus didn't confine himself," he said. "We have these big old mansions that we sometimes want to confine ourselves in but the church is out here."

The Catholic Church distributes ashes only as part of its Ash Wednesday Mass, said a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

"It's important to the church to provide people the opportunity to receive ashes and Communion in the context of Mass, given that it's a day of obligation for Catholics," said spokesman Sean Caine.

But even some Catholics were receiving their ashes outside the church Wednesday — because of broken heating systems or water pipes in half a dozen churches across the state.

Those affected included the Baltimore Basilica, which will be closed until at least Monday. The three Ash Wednesday services scheduled at the Basilica Wednesday were moved to the archdiocese's offices across the street, and Archbishop William E. Lori celebrated Mass at St. Alphonsus Liguori nearby, Caine said.

In Edgewood, Lutheran and United Methodist representatives were on the streets delivering ashes. Rev. Christine Parker, of Life Lutheran Church, and Rev. Shannon Sullivan, a new pastor at Presbury United Methodist Church, teamed up to provide the ritual ashes to commuters at the Edgewood MARC train station.

"One of the main reasons that people really like Ashes to Go is so they can probably wear their ashes all day," Parker said, explaining it can be tricky for some to encourage the display of piety.

"This has been a way that has been socially acceptable" to express one's faith, Parker said about the ashes, adding the key is "to be authentic about it, that it's not just a mask."

Some people weren't sure what to make of it; others were simply curious about the two young women standing with crosses on their foreheads in front of a big sign labeled "Ashes to Go" on the train platform of the Edgewood MARC station Wednesday morning.

"Some people came up really silently and said, 'Can I have some ashes, please?' and went back inside [the train station]," Sullivan said. "One lady said, 'I thought that was a Catholic thing.'"

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.



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