Today’s post is by Leslie Scanlon, Pastor at Grace Lutheran in Chesapeake, VA.
It was a cold winter morning (normal by New England standards), there were a couple inches of snow piled up on the side of the streets and sidewalks, and I was lugging a little table, a plastic box of supplies, and a sign to the local commuter rail station. That is where the people are; that is where the gospel—“remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”—needs to be heard.
In 2014 I collaborated with two ecumenical colleagues in town to provide “Ashes to Go” at the train station. We received a variety of reactions to our presence—avoidance, questions, intrigue, and thanks. Most commuters did not take us up on receiving ashes and prayer, but the first time of anything new can be intimidating. So we resolved to try this public witness again next year.
In 2015, the temperature was lower, the snow was higher, and more colleagues planned to join me, but ended up not making it. I started again with my table, sign, and ashes at the train station with similar interactions. However, later I moved over to the local university, where I was serving as the Protestant Campus Chaplain. The Dean’s office provided me with hot beverages (coffee, cider, and hot chocolate) to hand out while also hawking my ashes, which was a great way to break the ice and start conversations with passersby. Again though most did not end up wanting ashes or prayer, I had many staff and students thank me for being there since they did not think they were going to be otherwise able to participate in the ritual that day due to scheduling conflicts.
In 2016, after moving back to Virginia, sunrise on Ash Wednesday was warmer (not that my Southern blood allowed me to really appreciate it). The congregation I serve in Chesapeake, Virginia does not have a centralized gathering spot for commuters, so I simply stood outside the church, again with my little table, ashes, hand warmers, and sign. Some parishioners stood with me to pray with those who stopped by, and more stopped since they would not be able to make either of our worship services that day.
Providing “Ashes to Go” is not going to bring droves of new members through your door. It is about meeting people where they are, showing that God is present in the hustle and bustle of daily life, and preaching the gospel even if people look at your sideways while you do.