Our Anglican siblings have been promoting this idea for a few years:
On Ash Wednesday 2010, three Chicago-area Episcopal congregations independently took ashes and prayer to suburban train stations, Prayer on the street cornerand 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!
You can read more about it at the “Ashes to Go” website.
I’m reminded of something Cardinal John O’Connor did back in the ’80s: dispatching priests and seminarians to Penn Station and Grand Central to dab ashes on busy commuters during rush hour. I have no idea how effective it was, but people still talk about it.
I also recall visiting St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan some years back—the church sits near the CBS television studios where I worked—and encountering a small army of “ash ministers” standing by, ready to apply ashes for people running in and out during their lunch hour.
I’m not sure that’s the best way to do it, or the best way to begin a season that should be entered with a sense of both purpose and penitence. You run the risk of reducing this profound symbolic gesture into a superficial after-thought.
But people love their ashes. Lest we forget: this is not an obligation, and it’s not a sacrament (though so many seem to act like it is). And “ashes to go” is one way, I guess, to meet the heavy demand for something that does manage to connect people, in a mysterious and almost primal way, to their faith.
Who am I to judge?