I had the pleasure of participating in my first “Ashes to Go” outreach this year. Joining together with the Rev. John Graham (my field education supervisor), we provided ashes to people in the Georgetown neighborhood who frequently use our grounds as a convenient shortcut (which we encourage). Braving cold and a chilling breeze (which only got colder when the sun went down behind the buildings), we met, prayed with, and welcomed many people over the course of the post-work hour of 5-6pm.
We ashed many people including: the family traveling from Brazil who saw our sign while sightseeing in Georgetown and did not want to miss Ash Wednesday because of their travels; the middle-aged man staying at the Ritz-Carlton across the street who had just flown in to DC for work that day and proudly stated that “My Dad will be happy” as he received his ashes; the nanny from across the street who often brings the twins she watches to Grace’s outdoor programs like Music on the Lawn (when the weather is a bit nicer); and the two friends, one visiting from Boston, the other a Georgetown resident, who came up to ask us the simple questions “What is Ash Wednesday?” and “Can we participate?”
“Ashes to Go” has definitely become a popular form of evangelism, outreach, and (somewhat) publicity. With this, there has also been concerns raised about the validity of the act, the intention behind it, and the importance of respecting the liturgical elements of the church on days we hold in such high regard. I can definitely see valid arguments from both sides of the issue and yet, it has been in doing this for myself that I now know why I support this movement.
It is in the simple look of hope that was on each person’s face as they approached our table that I understand why we need to continue offering ashes to anyone and everyone as they go about their daily lives. The people who stopped by our table were never going to come in for our 7pm service that night. That would have been asking too much of them to face a foreign set of prayers and liturgical dance that may have been able to reach them, and where in that space would they have asked those questions that opened our dialogue with them on the sidewalk?
For someone new to Ash Wednesday, someone distanced from church, experiencing a language barrier, or simply only able to find 5 minutes in their busy day to run across the street and receive a simply prayer with a simple reminder that you are dust and to dust you shall return, “Ashes to Go” provides the perfect opportunity for a stranger to engage with someone who is actively saying “Come! Talk with me! Pray with me! And remember that you are precious in God’s sight!”
In providing that moment of hope, that moment where we are saying you belong here, with God and with all of humanity, we are providing a chance for others to lift their lives to God, to seek forgiveness for their sins throughout this season of Lent, and to engage again with a church that they have forgotten or possibly never known.