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Ash Wednesday ‘Ashes to Go” Takes Worship to the Streets in Bethel

In the Christian tradition, Ash Wednesday marks the start of the holy season of Lent, a time for reflection and repentance in preparation for the celebration of Easter.

Report by Paula Antolini
February 18, 2015 12:56PM EDT

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Photo above: Cheryn Kwasnik from St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church administers ashes to Rev. Laura Westvy, interim pastor of The First Congregational Church of Bethel.

Today is Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015, and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church and The First Congregational Church of Bethel were in front of Moltan Java in Bethel, CT, from 6:30 to 9:00 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., offering “Ashes to Go,” a new approach to a centuries-old Christian tradition.

Rev. Laura Westvy, interim pastor of The First Congregational Church of Bethel, and Cheryn Kwasnik, from St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, were braving temperatures below freezing today, at 25 degrees, to offer ashes to those who wished to receive. Earlier Rev. Norma Schmidt was there too, a priest from St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church.

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The two congregations are part of a new nationwide movement that has clergy and lay people visiting transit stops, street corners, coffee shops, and college campuses to mark the foreheads of interested passers-by with ashes and offer to pray with them for forgiveness, healing and renewal.

In the Christian tradition, Ash Wednesday marks the start of the holy season of Lent, a time for reflection and repentance in preparation for the celebration of Easter. For centuries, Christians have received a cross of ashes on the face at the beginning of that season as a reminder of human brokenness and an invitation to receive God’s forgiveness. Ashes to Go provides the opportunity to participate in that tradition for people who have lost their connection to a church, or have never participated before.

“Ashes to Go is about bringing the important traditions of our faith out from behind church walls and into the places we need them every day,” says the Rev. Emily Mellott, who maintains the website AshesToGo.org with resources and stories about this ministry. “As people get busier and busier, we need the church in new and non-traditional ways. We especially need reminders of forgiveness in the tough places of our working lives. The people who accept ashes on the street are often people longing to make a connection between their faith and the forces of daily life, and Ashes to Go helps them feel that connection.”

This is the third year that St. Thomas and First Congregational have offered Ashes to Go. “We want people to know that our only motive is to offer Christ’s healing love to them. There are so many people carrying heavy burdens. We were moved by the number of people who stopped last year.”

More information about the Ashes to Go movement can be found at www.AshesToGo.org

*****

More information from “Ashes to Go”:

Why “Ashes to Go”?

Ashes are an ancient sign of penitence. From the Middle Ages it became the custom to begin Lent by being marked in ash with the sign of the cross. The reminder that we are dust turns our attention to the creative power of God, and God’s ability to heal the brokenness in our lives when we offer that brokenness to God. That turning to God is the work of Lent, preparation for the celebration of Easter.

We take ashes to the street corner because that reminder of need, humility, and healing shouldn’t be confined to a church building.  We probably need it more when we are in the middle of our daily business! The ashes we receive are to remind us throughout the day of our need for God, and of God’s call to us.

There is much more to the beginning of Lent than ashes alone, and we encourage you to make time for worship with a community of faith, for the support of others and of the great traditions of faith in our work of repentance and renewal. But God meets us not just in worship, but in the midst of life, and we offer the opportunity to remember our faith to those whose schedules make it hard to stop and pray with others on a busy Wednesday.

How Ashes to Go got it’s name and inspiration

The story of this site:
On Ash Wednesday 2010, three Chicago-area Episcopal congregations independently took ashes and prayer to suburban train stations, and discovered commuters hungry for a moment of prayer, renewal and grace.  Those who had no time to attend services or had forgotten about the tradition were delighted to receive ashes with prayer as they began their day.  Many responded with tears or smiles of gratitude that the church would come to them.

Leaders in the three congregations who offered Ashes to Go agreed that this was too good to keep to ourselves, and we decided to invite others to join us.  Churches in San Francisco, St. Louis and elsewhere had offered similar ministries for years, but in 2011, the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago chose to coordinate Ashes outreach, and more than 25 Episcopal congregations and organizations around the Chicago area offered ashes on street corners and train platforms, coffee shops and outside grocery stores.

In 2012, Ashes to Go went viral and national.  Because of the coverage in Chicago the previous year, many people were looking for resources to launch their own Ash Wednesday ministries.  I started this site to offer easy access to the resources I and others had developed, and to share the great images and stories that came out of street corner ministries.  Interactions on this site help give a sense of the size and momentum of the movement.

In 2012, more than 80 churches in 21 states headed out to meet the world with ashes and prayer – and the gift of prayerful outreach made the national news.  It’s rare to find a story about the church’s mission on the front page or the morning news, but in 2012 the USA Today told a story of good news, and it was picked up on CBS This Morning.  Pastors and people who took ashes out of the church building reached people who never even saw them because Ashes to Go is photogenic, inviting, and creative.  It creates opportunities for people to take a fresh look at the church and the gospel.

In 2013, Ashes to Go (or in some contexts “Ashes Take-Away”) went international – in Canada, the UK and South Africa.  Our site had information on *** Ashes offerings in 31 states and the District of Columbia, and there were certainly many more offered.

Ashes to Go is not trademarked or licensed or limited to certain sectors or brands of Christianity – this site is meant as a free resource to people who are interested in this holy adventure in any way.  My goal on this site is to support the planning and help to tell the stories of an imaginative, vital, holy way in which more and more churches are setting out to meet God’s people where they are.

So let’s get out into the world!

–Emily Mellott, Ashes to Go Evangelist

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