Two deacons, one Episcopal, one Catholic, were standing on a street in Beverly Hills, in front of Tiffany's, across from Louis Vuitton.
It could have been the set-up for a joke — and some passersby thought it might be. Or maybe somebody was filming something? They stood and stared at the men dressed in purple stoles, white surplices and long black cassocks.
"Are you real? For real?" one woman in oversized Chanel sunglasses asked Scott Taylor of All Saints Episcopal Church and Eric Stoltz of the Church of the Good Shepherd.
Others who noticed the sign that said, "Hey Beverly Hills, Lent Begins Today!" or saw the deacons' blackened right thumbs or heard Taylor cheerily call out "Ashes for Ash Wednesday" realized that, right there on the sidewalk, church was coming to them.
Melissa White and Gregg Pasquale, who had just made their way down the steps of Via Rodeo, rushed right over with their two daughters, Ava, 10, and Aliya, 13.
They had escaped, they said, from Snowmageddon in Rockland, Mass. To see Beverly Hills, they had hopped off a Starline Tours bus. They'd soon hop on another to Hollywood.
"I guess the whole Lenten giving-up-something on Rodeo Drive is a little hard to get your head wrapped around, but that's all right," said White, who is Catholic. "This is a great opportunity."
Stoltz and Taylor said they had heard about other churches bringing ashes to the streets. A website called Ashes to Go listed such efforts planned for Wednesday in 33 states and four other countries. Photos of St. Augustine by the Sea Episcopal Church bringing ashes to the Santa Monica farmers market popped up on Twitter with the hashtag #ashtag.
In Beverly Hills, the two deacons offered slightly divergent messages as they marked crosses of ash from the burned palm fronds of last year's Palm Sunday on forehead after forehead.
"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," Taylor said. "Repent and believe in the Gospel," Stoltz said.
Asked about the meaning of the ritual at the start of Lent, Taylor said, "It's a reminder of our mortality, a turning back to God and a turning away from things we shouldn't be doing."
"It's really a sign of the urgency of the season — to evaluate the way you're living your life, to maybe think about ways you can be a better person," Stoltz added. "It's urgent because you have only so much time in your life."
Janine Jimenez, 26, who said she grew up having that urgency stressed, was going over her church's Mass schedule behind the counter of SoulCycle indoor cycling gym when Stoltz and Taylor walked by.
It might as well have been a divine message. She ran out the door to catch up with them.
Deliverymen on bicycles braked to get their ashes. Two men jumped out of a pickup with a lawn mower in the back and ran over, leaving the truck running.
Word spread as the deacons moved around the area — stopping for a while at Wilshire Boulevard and Beverly Drive, then moving up Beverly to the intersection with Dayton Way.
Lorena Guerra, 22, was in town from Monterrey, Mexico, interviewing for jobs as a fashion stylist. She already had heard from her mother that morning about the need to go to Mass. The stranger she'd asked for directions to a nearby church had seen the deacons and pointed her to them.
On Beverly, Taylor and Stoltz stood right outside the big windows of Il Fornaio, where they soon were spotted by the restaurant's Italian waiters. They work 12-hour shifts and it's hard to get ashes after that, they said, as they rushed out the front door. "You're going to go to the church, it's going to be too much traffic," said Rino Gloria, 46, originally from Rome.
A man arriving at the restaurant for lunch stopped for a second to look, and said, "Isn't that fantastic? A priest right where you need him."
Heather Molloy, 37, arrived on the scene holding her dog, Luna Estrella, a Brussels Griffon. She said she was just driving by and thought, what perfect timing because she had decided to go to meditation instead of Mass that evening.
The dog got a blessing from Taylor for "giving love and joy." Molloy, ashes on her forehead, left beaming.
But no one was more enthusiastic about the sidewalk encounter than a man who rushed up to Taylor, calling out, "Hold it, hold it, hold it, my rabbi. Whatcha doing? Explain." He introduced himself as Eddie. He said he was homeless. He wore a wool hat on his head, a checked scarf around his neck and a big brown blanket draped over his shoulders.
"Today's the day you wash away the sins or something like that?" he asked. Taylor said no, it was about mortality.
"Look around you," the deacon said, pointing at the elegant shops. "You see all the stuff you can buy and accumulate. You can't keep it. This is a reminder of that."
Eddie nodded his head but declined the ashes, saying, "What am I going to do with them? Nah, me, I'd rather stay natural."