I got the idea for this ministry from Ashes to Go, when clergy and laypeople alike offer ashes outdoors, rather than inside the church, on Ash Wednesday. The first time I participated in Ashes to Go was at the Stamford, Connecticut train station when I was in seminary. I huddled with a group of fellow seminarians in the parking garage around 6:00 in the morning. In the dark and cold, we offered prayers from the Ash Wednesday liturgy, marked each other's foreheads with ashes, and then dispersed to various platforms, entrances, and other other well-traveled spots in the station. Many commuters were surprised to see us. A few asked about the legitimacy of what we were doing. Others said "thanks" but they'd be getting their ashes at church later that day. And several took us up on the offer to receive ashes right there. "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."
Over the years I added an additional piece to the exchange - ask for the person's name and a prayer request before giving ashes. Nine times out of ten, people shared something they or a loved one needed prayer for. This gave me the opportunity to offer a brief prayer on the spot and then state their name before imposing the ashes. The same thing I do now before giving a blessing.
I haven't participated in Ashes to Go for a while. I serve in a church that sees upward of 500 people on Ash Wednesday, and they stream through the doors all day long. I don't have time to offer ashes at the subway station or anywhere else other than the sanctuary. But when the stream slows, I can take my time and ask for prayer requests. That is, unless I get intimidated. All kinds of folks come for ashes, and some look mighty grumpy. You'd think this is all the more reason to see if they need prayer, but that's not my instinct.
This past Wednesday, I gave in to my intimidation and stopped short of asking an older woman for a prayer request. I went straight to giving the ashes with the usual words, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." She immediately quipped, "I hope sooner rather than later." Then she gave me a wry smile while I tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle a laugh. I asked her, "Why is that?" She told me she was in pain - a lot of pain caused by numerous physical ailments. (No wonder she had looked so grumpy.) And there was my opportunity to pray for her.
I think it's safe to say I won't feel intimidated in this situation again. Or if I do, I'll overcome it; I'll offer to pray for even the grumpiest looking person. And if you ever see me looking grumpy, please pray for me too.