Ashes to Go: Good Shepherd Members Take Ash Wednesday Outside Church
Members of the Fort Lee church offered ashes and a prayer to commuters near the George Washington Bridge Wednesday morning.
Members of Fort Lee’s Church of the Good Shepherd tried something new Wednesday morning, taking part in what they were calling “Ashes to Go” in celebration of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.
As Rev. Allison Moore of Good Shepherd recently blogged, the Right Rev. Mark Beckwith, Bishop of the Diocese of Newark, asked members of Episcopal churches in North Jersey “to go to train stations, bus stations, busy intersections or other places people gather to offer ashes and a prayer for Ash Wednesday.”
So a small contingent from the Fort Lee church gathered early Wednesday morning at the bus stop under Lemoine Avenue, where commuters catch buses to cross the George Washington Bridge, and did just that, propping up an “Ashes to Go” sign, with Moore offering ashes and the prayer, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” to anybody who was interested.
“It’s supposed to mean, remember that you are mortal,” Moore explained. “We suffer, and God is with us—not we’re this awful person that needs to grovel.”
Church member Joe Fiorenza Conklin described Ash Wednesday as “our reflection for our Lenten sacrifice.”
“It gives us a new awareness of what we should feel inside to become a better person,” he said. “I think an event like this is something promising for the church to be able to let people know just how important it is to have a faith.”
But things started off slowly, with few of the hurried commuters seeming to notice or take much interest in the “Ashes to Go” sign or Moore with her ashes at the ready.
Moore said the main goal however of what she described as an “experiment” was to “meet people outside the church.”
“The church is interested in getting outside its doors and offering people liturgy,” Moore said. “Obviously not very many people are interested. But for those of us in the church, we need to know that.”
She added, “The things we think are important are no longer on the cultural radar.”
But one passerby, who said she was going to Mass later in the day, was also heard to say, “What a good idea,” before she rushed off to board a waiting bus.
Another woman said she was going to “try to get ashes from the Cardinal,” an apparent reference to Timothy Dolan, who was back in New York City Wednesday after his elevation to cardinal Saturday in Rome.
Several others politely declined, but took a moment to say they were getting their ashes later in the day at church.
At one point, a woman leaned out of an Express Service jitney bus before it departed and called Moore over, and things started to pick up when Good Shepherd member Jonathan Woolley dropped by and started asking people if they wanted “ashes for Lent” as they descended the stairs from Lemoine Avenue.
Woolley, who has worked in New York City and Newark, said it’s not uncommon in the bigger cities for churches to offer ashes during people’s lunch hour.
“When I worked in the city, there was a Catholic church around the corner from where I worked; they’d been doing this every year [during lunchtime], and a fair number of people would show up,” Woolley said. “I think if you’re used to doing it on Ash Wednesday on your lunch hour, you’ve gotten into a routine … and now we’re breaking the routine … it’s not often people do it out here; it’s a new thing.”
By the end of the roughly 90 minutes that Moore and the others stayed at the bus stop, several people had stopped to get their ashes to go.
“There are about 20 churches trying this, and we’re actually supposed to give our experiences back to the Bishop,” Moore said. “I’m glad we did this. It’s interesting to me to see how irrelevant in some ways we are, and yet how, with an invitation, some people respond.”
She also said she learned from the experience and plans to try more events like it.
“I want to do more stuff out in the street,” Moore said. “I want to do a Stations of the Earth again and find other ways of getting the church out.”