Video: Ashes to go

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Feb 13, 2013

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal Church members, both clergy and lay, took to the streets on Ash Wednesday to offer the world the traditional symbol of the beginning of Lent. In this video produced on Ash Wednesday 2012, the Rev. Sandye A. Wilson offers imposition of ashes during a chilly morning at the New Jersey Transit train station in South Orange. During a break, she discusses the importance of bring the church to the streets. The Ashes to Go movement has grown annually. More information is available on the Ashes to Go website and here.


Comments (4)

  1. Grace Burson says:

    I should totally use this as a way of teaching my train-obsessed five-year-old about Ash Wednesday.

  2. The Rev'd Anthony C. Dinoto says:

    This year, in the two weeks or so before Ash Wednesday, and anticipating a repeat of last year’s “Ashes To Go” outreach that was reported in 2012, I conducted a very UN-scientific survey. I was on the fence about joining the “ATG” movement. When the opportunity presented itself, I asked a variety of folks that I know about “Ashes to Go”. There were people with various levels of connectedness to any church or not. Typically, I’d pose a question such as: “What would you think about passing a priest standing on the sidewalk in town next to a sign declaring “Ashes to Go” on Ash Wednesday? The responses were cause for concern, amusement and skepticism about the idea. These are some of the actual reactions: “What is Lent, anyway?”; “That’s weird.”; “Really, you mean right on the town green?”; “No kidding, I didn’t know they still did Lent.”; “That’s new, isn’t it? Does that count for not going to church?”; “Who’s ashes do they use?”; “Well, I suppose if you can’t lead a horse to water, bring the water to them!”; “Well, if people are too lazy to go to church to get ashes why enable them?” “That’s a great idea, I always forget its Ash Wednesday until its too late.” — My best Ash Wednesday story happened when I was in seminary. While studying at General Theological Seminary, N.Y. I had the chance to assist with the Imposition of Ashes at Trinity Church, Wall Street where literally hundreds of people received ashes all day long. A woman approached my station, a long line behind her, and leaned forward to whisper something. “I’m not a Roman Catholic!” she whispered apologetically. I leaned back, looked her in the eye and responded, “That’s O.K., neither am I” and proceeded to sign her forehead with an ashen cross. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

  3. I’ve been ambivalent about Ashes to Go for a while. On one hand, my own ministry is very much motivated by looking for ways to “take it to the streets”. On the other hand, something just feels a bit off about Ashes to Go.

    My friend, the Rev. Michael Sniffen (of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn, NY) articulates a lot of what’s been lurking under my discomfort in his recent parish blog post (linked below), and he does it from the perspective of a priest who REALLY takes his ministry to the streets everyday throughout the year.

    You may have read about Michael here on ENS (as well as many secular news outlets). He’s been taking his ministry to the streets by serving as a Chaplain to the Occupy Wall Street movement, allowing his parish to serve as a primary hub for Occupy Sandy hurricane relief efforts, hosting artists and arts events, and countless other smaller ways. Some were so threatened by his “taking it to the streets” that his church was actually the victim of an arson attack just over a year ago.

    Public ministry is vitally important, and also sometimes risky. But it’s not enough to simply nod in that direction once a year.

    I comment his blog post to your discernment:

  4. I also commend Michale Sniffen’s excellent reflection. Here’s yet another perspective on this recent phenomenon in which the author wonders if this is just a gimmick, offering “cheap grace” and “mortality on the fly”. In the absence of any solid pastoral theology as its foundation, I share the same concern.

    I think the priest in the video inadvertently names the animating dynamic of “Ashes to Go”. Oh, to be sure, there are good intentions, but there is also unmistakable anxiety. At the end of the clip, the priest says she offers “Ashes to Go”, “….in the hope that, next year, they’ll find their way back to church.” The purpose I fear, is not to ‘bring the church to the world’ or ‘make the church more relevant in people’s lives’ or to have “opportunities for grace”.

    That may be what we tell ourselves, but that’s not the real reason. It’s our own anxiety about row after row of empty pews. It’s in the hope that, if the church goes out to people, people will come into church. That’s just not going to happen, not unless the church goes out to people offering more than just a smudge of ashes on their forehead and more than just one day a year.

    I think the ancient Rabbi, Gamaliel, offers us some wisdom in this. We shall see if this is simply a fad or if it will last. My hunch? By the end of this decade, we’ll not be seeing much evidence of Ashes to Go. I suspect it is because it will not prosper the secret desire of helping people ‘find their way back to church.’ And, because good intentions, by themselves, have always paved the road that leads to a predictable destination.

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