Lenten observers take their Ashes to Go

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Leta Dunham got her breakfast order to go at a Roland Avenue Starbucks Wednesday morning: a grande triple skim latte in her cup and, on her forehead, an ashen reminder that we are all destined to become dust.

Dunham was among Ash Wednesday observers who took advantage of Ashes to Go, a service offered by area Episcopal and Methodist churches at more than a dozen spots around the city and nearby counties, part of a national movement that began with an Episcopal church in St. Louis in 2007. The practice seeks to bring the Lenten season ritual to the people, rather than waiting for them to come to church.

"It's a little more convenient, but why not?" said Dunham, who stopped by the Starbucks at Roland and Deepdene at about 8 a.m. — first for the latte, then for the ashes imposed by the Rev. M. Cristina Paglinauan, associate rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Homeland.

Dunham, who stopped by with her 3-year-old son, Beckett, said she would normally attend church to observe Ash Wednesday, but she and her family recently moved to the area from Silver Spring and are still searching for a congregation.

Wearing a white surplice and purple stole, Paglinauan stood outside Starbucks for about an hour Wednesday with Emily Perper, an intern with the Episcopal Service Corps, asking passers-by if they would like to receive ashes. She held in her left hand a small container of crushed palm ashes, an ancient symbol of penitence.

"I'm not pushing them on people," said Paglinauan, who last year performed the rite for the first time outside Atwater's restaurant in Belvedere Square. She said some people don't look up, some politely decline. She remembered one person last year begging off with "No, thank you, I'm actually Jewish."

The pastors outside light rail stops, Penn Station, coffee shops, pubs, wine stores and churches were not inclined to check religious denominations. The ritual — marking the beginning of the 40-day season of Lent that culminates in the celebration of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection on Easter Sunday — is observed chiefly in Catholic and Episcopal churches, though some Lutheran congregations and other Protestant denominations also take part.

In the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, Ashes to Go started in 2011 with Epiphany Episcopal Church in Timonium. Last year eight churches took part, and this year there were at least nine, said Sharon Tillman, a spokeswoman for the diocese.

According to the website ashestogo.org, an Episcopal church in St. Louis launched the practice in 2007. As of last year, according to the site, it had spread to 80 churches in 21 states.

The Rev. Kristofer Lindh-Payne, Epiphany's co-rector, said he first heard of the idea in Chicago, where he was in seminary.

"I think, in many ways, this is a recovery of something that's really old," said Lindh-Payne, referring to Jesus and his disciples spreading the word in the streets, marketplaces and on hillsides. "They were where the people were."

The Rev. Stephanie Vader, pastor of Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Laurel, said representatives of her church and Mt. Zion Methodist Church, in nearby Highland, were out at the Maple Lawn community in Howard County in the morning and planned to return in the afternoon, trying Ashes to Go for the first time.

"I love the idea of going out of the church and taking it to the people," said Vader, who stood outside Looney's Pub offering ashes. Colleagues were posted outside a wine store and the offices of AAA MidAtlantic.

No Roman Catholic churches in the area were taking part, said Sean Caine, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He said the church believes the ritual should takes place in the context of a Mass.

Lindh-Payne acknowledged that not everyone thinks Ashes to Go is a good idea, but "it's not like there's raging opposition." He said when he first took up the idea with the Rev. Canon Dan Webster, the canon for evangelism and ministry development for the diocese, Webster liked it immediately.

"It just clicked," said Webster. "Of course, that makes perfect sense. … Evangelism is part of our DNA. In the Episcopal Church we've denied that for a long time."

He said the practice is a way for the church to adapt to a world in which people are busy, and to urge them to take a moment for reflection. "If we as a church can go to where people are," Webster said, "we are doing what Jesus told us to do: Go, go."

Go they did, for instance, to Starbucks.

On Wednesday morning Christine Thomas, a member of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, a Roman Catholic church on Charles Street, stopped there for ashes after dropping off her teenage daughters and an exchange student from China at the Roland Park Country School. She had missed morning Mass and heard about the Ashes to Go offering.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for us to do this while dropping off kids," said Thomas, adding that she still expected she would attend a noon Mass.

Paglinauan took but a few moments to make an ashen sign of the cross on her forehead and say "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

A few miles to the north, the Rev. Ken Saunders, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson, took a bit more time, reading a one-paragraph prayer referring to penitence, confession and redemption through Christ.

He took the early shift, staking out a spot next to a driveway alongside the church on Allegheny Avenue shortly after 7 a.m. He posted an Ashes to Go sign and waited.

He didn't have to wait long for Kimberly Piccirilli, who lives close to the church and stopped off before heading to work. Piccirilli, who is Catholic, said she'd heard about Ashes to Go online.

"It makes everything more convenient for people who want to take part in Ash Wednesday and can't get to a church," she said. "It's a good idea, and I hope it continues."

One woman stayed behind the wheel of her black Chevy Malibu, letting Saunders reach through the window with his blackened right thumb.

Saunders, who is doing "Ashes to Go" for a second year, said he was initially skeptical, wondering if taking the ritual out of the context of a church service would "cheapen the experience."

"I really had to think about it," he said. The more he thought about it, the more he liked it. "I had a profound feeling this is what the church should be doing."

 

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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