On Ash Wednesday, several Portland-area priests, a lay person, and a deacon-in-formation took, as one priest describes it, “the sacred to the secular” by spending several hours in full vestments at Monument Square in downtown Portland and at Post Office Park in the Old Port. Over the course of the day, they offered Ashes-to-Go to more than 120 people who, moments before, had been going about their daily business on the streets of Portland.
Earlier this winter the Rev. Larry Weeks, rector of Trinity Church on Forest Avenue who also serves St. Peter’s on Washington Avenue, approached other Portland-area priests about the possibility after reading about Ashes-to-Go offered in the Diocese of Chicago last year. The practice has been slowly spreading across The Episcopal Church since 2007, when a priest in St. Louis dreamed up the idea of offering the imposition of ashes and a blessing at commuter rail stations.
“I figured it’s time we venture outside our church walls to offer hope and forgiveness and healing to people who may still have a spiritual hunger but aren’t so sure about Church,” Weeks said. “Why can’t we do this in Maine?”
Together with Trinity member Dibbie Appleton, Weeks took the morning “shift” at Monument Square, where they offered ashes to a few dozen people between 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. Weeks described one of the encounters, “A man in an expensive business suit walked by quickly, glanced at sign, and us and kept going. Then he circled back slowly and approached and when he was in front of me, had tears in his eyes and said haltingly, ‘It’s been so… long.’”
Meanwhile the Rev. Regina Knox, diocesan urban missioner, and Dick Rasner, director of the St. Elizabeth’s Essentials Pantry and a deacon-in-formation, offered ashes to about the same number of people in the Post Office park at the corner of Middle and Exchange Streets.
Knox recounted her experience this way, “I remember very first couple to came forward, grateful and reverent and expectant; an entire Hispanic family, devout, with a little boy with eyes closed and hands in prayer position; a number of young women; numerous older men, professional and sophisticated; a family from out of town, a man who came forward to make sure he saw a collar, a little concerned that it might be a joke, but so happy to know it was not.”
She continued, “What stands out for me is the way people came forward in a way that was sacred, quiet, and so very much in the moment. All those bowed heads, waiting. Dick Rasner and I took turns saying the collect for Ash Wednesday and imposing the ashes. Even though it was ashes-to-go, there was nothing on-the-go about it. It was a moment in eternity and worship equal to that experienced inside of a church. On that morning there was an inbreaking of God’s Kingdom there on the sidewalk. People slowed down in their cars to look, some took pictures (including a Fedex driver who stopped his truck to get a picture with his phone), and some asked questions.”
Later in the day the Rev. Tim Higgins, rector of St. Ann’s in Windham, was stationed at Monument Square along with the Rev. Shirley Bowen, Episcopal Chaplain at the University of Southern Maine, and the Rev. Peter Bowen, deacon at Christ Church in Biddeford. Together they administered ashes to more than 50 people between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m.
Higgins described the experience as “one of the coolest ministries I have even been involved with.” He recounts how two women with five pre-teens stopped on their way to the girls basketball play-off game between McAuley High School and Windham High School at the Civic Center. They lamented the fact that they had been to three other churches looking for an opportunity to pray and receive the ashes but to no avail. “They were ‘blown away’ by the fact that we were on the street corner, available and willing to offer ashes to anyone who came to us.”
He described another encounter in which “a jogger who came through and stopped long enough to pray with us, receive his ashes and continue on his jog, while saying, ‘I’ve never done that before, thanks so much!’”
Shirley Bowen, reflecting on the experience of taking Ashes-to-Go to the people, had this to say, “What I took with me from Ash Wednesday is the extraordinary gratitude we could see in everyone’s eyes. On the street I read yearning and gratitude. When we insert the sacred into the secular, something happens. Hearts break open, whispers from years past call people back to the specialness of receiving ashes – which I think is that sacramental moment of offering that visible, physical connection, to experience God once again.”
Down in the Old Port that afternoon the Rev. Nina Pooley, rector of St. Bart’s in Yarmouth, and the Rev. David Heald, priest at St. Nick’s in Scarborough, found themselves offering ashes and prayers to 20 to 30 people, but not – at first – without some trepidation.
Pooley confessed, “David and I were both surprised by how hard it was to put on the vestments and walk a few blocks in the Old Port. It took courage to do that, and it was tempting not to. But there is both safety and accountability in numbers – so, in full vestments, we walked together with our sign and our table and our flyers and two little plastic containers of ashes to offer a moment of prayer and reconciliation to those who walked by.
“It took more courage than I anticipated. I was afraid we’d be among the wild beasts and discovered instead that we were tended by angels.”
Pooley and Heald encountered many different people. “We met people from out of town who didn’t have a church here; we met people from down the road – literally, who are looking for a church; we met Lutherans who didn’t have time in their workday to get to church; we met a few lapsed Catholics who were glad for the opportunity to take part in this beginning of Lent without having to go back into a church they were no longer attending. We met some Episcopalians who cheered us on. A young man dressed like a gangster tipped his hat at us as he walked by and said, ‘God bless you.’”
While Heald was explaining what they were doing to a young girl and her mother, a twenty-something young woman rushed over to Pooley, who recalled their encounter.
“‘Oh my God,” the young woman said, ‘it’s Ash Wednesday I had completely forgotten – you saved my life!’ When I put the ashes on her forehead, adding to the many piercings, she told me that her mother would be so pleased. And I thought, I’m making a mark on your face that will please your mother!”
Shirley Bowen summed it up, “When we offer sacramental moments in the secular world, when we meet people where they are, in their environment, we enlarge the landscape. It is a different world when God is present.”