Frequently Asked Questions
Where should we do this?
Look for a place with lots of pedestrian traffic, or a neighborhood hangout type of place – somewhere where people are comfortable being with strangers. Transit stops are great for this, but so are coffeehouses (think about places where political candidates go for informal handshaking!) Think about who you have relationships with near you. A local hospital that doesn’t have a chaplaincy staff (and even some who do), might welcome a visit from an ashes team for staff as well as patients. So might local fire and police departments, or any other places where people work long shifts and can’t get to church.
Do you need to get permission?
You don’t generally need permission for public space like sidewalks. If you’d like to be on private property (shopping centers, coffee shops, etc., and some hospitals), or in a public office (the police station, other hospitals), it’s wise to talk ahead of time with the owner or manager, to be sure they are comfortable with what you’ll be doing.
Of course, if some one asks you to move, be flexible. Ashes to Go is about the church on the move, not the church stuck in one place!
Who can do this?
This is a ministry that may appeal to local clergy groups, but don’t hesitate to invite participation from anyone in your congregation. Lay people may certainly engage people in prayer, and can administer ashes. This can be a powerful opportunity for individuals to minister to strangers and friends. (If your tradition has a blessing over the ashes, this should generally be done by a priest before anyone administers ashes; check your tradition’s liturgical resources.)
What do we need?
Bring your ashes in a sealable container. Often you can find small screw-top jars sold for travel toiletries.
It’s also a good idea to have something participants can take with them: a copy of the prayers you use, a short explanation of the Ash Wednesday tradition and why you’re out and about with it, information on Lenten programs or a reflection booklet. (Consider options from Episcopal Relief and Development and Forward Movement.) Ash Wednesday is the entrance to a holy Lent, and a takeaway offers participants the opportunity to engage beyond the street-corner or coffeehouse encounter.
What do we do?
Be friendly. Greet people, offer them ashes, wish them a good day if they decline. Check out the Resources page for liturgical options for a variety of situations.
Make sure the liturgical activity you plan is in keeping with your congregation’s regular worship patterns. If you use incense or other portable symbols regularly in worship, you might want to incorporate that in Ashes to Go. If your worship is simple, keep Ashes to Go simple. It may be a good idea to wear vestments, depending on your tradition. Vestments signal to people that something special is happening, and make you more visible.
But shouldn’t people actually go to church on Ash Wednesday? Isn’t this cheap grace?
What we do in church is so much more than we do on the street corner. We confess, repent, reflect, pray, and receive God’s gifts in community. Ideally, people who receive ashes on the street corner would join their faith community for corporate worship on Ash Wednesday. But some people literally cannot get to church on Ash Wednesday – working two jobs to make ends meet, or committed to substantial family or community needs. Others have forgotten that the church is here for people who aren’t already right with God. That’s why we go to the streets. Our actions speak louder than our words. If you aren’t ready or able to come to church, then the church is willing and able to come to you with God’s invitation to relationship, repentance and healing.
In the Episcopal church’s liturgy for the day, the imposition of ashes serves as our invitation to repentance, and a response to our encounter with the Word of God. Ashes to Go moves the encounter with God (in the form of God’s people offering prayer and symbols) and that invitation to repentance out of the church building, into the spaces of everyday life where we live out our response to God. The grace comes from God, the same free gift at the same cost, as God’s grace made known inside the church.