On this first day of Lent, St. Peters Episcopal Church has an answer for Charlotte Christians too busy to make it to an Ash Wednesday service.
Ashes to Go.
Wednesday morning, midday, and afternoon, the Rev. Ollie Rencher and a few lay ministers will be on the sidewalk in front of the their uptown church, making ashen crosses on the foreheads of all interested passersby.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, theyll intone each time as a reminder of our mortality and as an invitation to seek repentance during the 40-day Lenten journey to Easter Sunday.
This modern take on an ancient tradition is a way for St. Peters church to meet the individual where she or he is on the journey literally, said Rencher, 43, who became rector last September at the historic church at N. Tryon and Seventh streets.
The 900-member parish is so intent on accommodating those in a hurry because of work or other commitments, he said, that it may erect a tent if it rains Wednesday as the forecast suggests it will.
Rencher said St. Peters could find no past example in Charlotte of taking Ash Wednesday to the streets.
But the Ashes to Go idea was born in 2007, with an Episcopal church in suburban St. Louis. Last year, 70 Episcopal parishes in 18 states offered the black-soot cross of ashes to people on sidewalks and in coffee shops, train and subway stations, according to a report in USA Today.
In 2011, the newspaper also reported, the Rev. Jeff Lee, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, showed up in full vestments, in the rain, ready to administer ashes. The very first person was a cab driver who pulled to a halt, the bishop recounted, and shouted: Lent! I completely forgot!
Rather than shame people into getting to church on Ash Wednesday, Rencher said churches must recognize that times and technology are changing, altering the culture, work schedules and the pace of daily living.
The church has to become increasingly more creative on how it will meet individuals where they are, he said. We need to say, Well come to you.
Good to try new things
A sandwich board advertising Ashes to Go at St. Peters complete with the times and information about four Ash Wednesday services inside the church has been on display on N. Tryon Street for days.
Those church services, which will include Holy Communion, each last about 45 minutes.
Getting ashes in front of the church will take just three to five minutes. Each recipient will also receive a prayer card and a bottle of water the latter to remind them of refreshment, Rencher said.
All the ashes that will be administered, inside and outside, came from burning the palm branches from last years Palm Sunday.
On Tuesday morning, two people walking by St. Peters and its Ashes to Go sign gave contrasting takes on the churchs plans.
I believe downtown should be more secular. If people want (religion), they can go inside, said Mike McTyre, 29, who works uptown and said hes religious, but not a church-goer. Plus, this seems to treat (getting ashes) like its a commodity.
But Jon Dresser, 69, a St. Peters parishioner who works for a life insurance company uptown, saluted the idea.
Its always good to try new things, he said. And it makes people more aware of God.
Though Ashes to Go has been adopted by other denominations around the country, Roman Catholicism isnt one of them. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops told USA Today last year that its teaching is that ashes are to be administered in a church, during a Mass or a liturgical service involving Scripture, prayer and a call to repentance.
Rencher acknowledged that some Christians may worry that the on-the-run setting Wednesday isnt reverent enough or may not always foster introspection.
But, he said, the Holy Spirit is out of our control. So we dont know how people (who get ashes) will respond. We have to leave so much of things up to mystery and experiment.
His hope, the rector said, is that Ashes to Gowill offer more Charlotteans a chance to start Lent with ashes on their foreheads and a yearning for Easter in their hearts.
Wearing the ashes is a marking no pun intended of a new life and being reminded of who we are as children of God, Rencher said. Those ashes say: Now, go back into the world and prepare for new life. The 40 days of Lent is an opportunity to journey with Christ.
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