CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On this first day of Lent, St. Peter’s 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 plan to be on the sidewalk in front of their uptown church, making ashen crosses on the foreheads of all interested passersby.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” they’ll intone each time as a reminder of people’s 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. Peter’s 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 North 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 might erect a tent if it rains Wednesday – as the forecast suggests it will.
Rencher said St. Peter’s 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, ‘We’ll come to you.’ ”
‘Good to try new things’
A sandwich board advertising “Ashes to Go” at St. Peter’s – complete with the times and information about four Ash Wednesday services inside the church – has been on display on North 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 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 palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday.
On Tuesday morning, two people walking by St. Peter’s and its “Ashes to Go” sign gave contrasting takes on the church’s 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 he’s religious, but not a church-goer. “Plus, this seems to treat (getting ashes) like it’s a commodity.”
But Jon Dresser, 69, a St. Peter’s parishioner who works for a life insurance company uptown, saluted the idea.
“It’s 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 isn’t 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 isn’t reverent enough or may not always foster introspection.
But, he said, “the Holy Spirit is out of our control. So we don’t 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 Go” will 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.”