published Thursday, March 6th, 2014

30 seconds of God: 'Ashes to Go' takes liturgy to the streets

Bob Leopold, a missioner at Southside Abbey, blesses Jama Jacks from her car on Ash Wednesday in Chattanooga. Ashes to Go is a movement through the Episcopal Church to bring Ash Wednesday to those who may not be able to make it to a service.
Bob Leopold, a missioner at Southside Abbey, blesses Jama Jacks from her car on Ash Wednesday in Chattanooga. Ashes to Go is a movement through the Episcopal Church to bring Ash Wednesday to those who may not be able to make it to a service.
Photo by Maura Friedman.
  • photo
    Lou Parsons, a priest with St. Francis Episcopal Church, stands by the road ready to give ashes to those wanting them on Ash Wednesday in Ooltewah. Ashes to Go is campaign to bring blessings to those who would be unable to attend church on Ash Wednesday.
    Photo by Maura Friedman.
    enlarge photo

The priest stood alone on the edge of the car-clogged road, ashes in hand. A lid protected her canister from the wind, advice she read earlier on a tip sheet.

She watched for brake lights, a friendly smile. It was the before-school rush as parents delivered their children to Ooltewah Elementary just down the road. She adjusted her white and purple vestments.

"I thought that time they were coming over," Lou Parsons of St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church in Ooltewah said, laughing, as a green minivan passed.

It was Ash Wednesday, a day when millions of Christians observe the beginning of Lent, a solemn commemoration of the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert and a lead-up to Easter.

"Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return," priests recite each season, using ashes on their thumbs to trace the sign of the cross on the foreheads of believers.

It's a time of prayer and reflection. But Parsons wasn't banking on everyone to make it to the special noon or evening service on Wednesday. People are busy. They have jobs. The kids have basketball practice.

So she took Ash Wednesday outside, a few yards beyond the church walls to bear witness on the gravel turnaround on Ooltewah-Georgetown Road.

"It's a way of taking the liturgy to the streets literally," Parsons said.

Ashes to Go is part of a national movement to broaden the reach of Ash Wednesday and indicative of a larger trend to make the church and its teachings more accessible. It has a website, a social media presence and hundreds of participants. It was started in 2010 by three Episcopal congregations in the Chicago area. This year more than 140 sites in 29 states and three countries planned to participate in Ashes to Go, according to the group's Facebook page.

James Hudnut-Beumler, a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University, says this type of "entrepreneurial evangelism" is important in a country where a 24/7 lifestyle has overtaken the traditional Sabbath. He says Ash Wednesday -- a midweek religious observance that highlights mortality -- is an even harder sell.

"These two allegiances: to be part of the American lifestyle and to be still connected with our religious life are very important, to American Southerners especially," Hudnut-Beumler said.

Some priests have been taking ashes to the people in Chattanooga for three years. They've gone to the UTC campus and Pilgrim's Pride chicken plant and taquerias on the South Side. Chattanooga area Episcopal Bishop George Young encouraged all the churches in his diocese to participate this year.

It might seem a little shallow: 30 seconds with a priest and a quick dab of ashes. But participants say it's yet another opportunity to bear witness to the gospel and the meaning of the beginning of Lent, although it doesn't come without concerns.

"Here's the danger: If that message can't get conveyed in the quick interchange, then we have trivialized the deep meaning of the imposition of ashes," Hudnut-Beumler said. "But I think the opportunity that is there is for someone who's doing this to provide a witness and a wake-up call to the passers-by."

Over in downtown Chattanooga, Bob Leopold, a missioner at Southside Abbey was out, too, wearing his vestments, ashes in hand.

"We've got to love people; that's our call," Leopold said. "So if this is a small part of reminding people of that story of love, then I think that is a good thing."

One woman paused for ashes while walking her dogs. A man received his at the car wash where he works. Another woman leaned out of her car for a blessing. Pat Eubanks, a crossing guard, got her ashes while Leopold waited at her intersection.

"I needed that," Eubanks said. "I asked for a blessing today."

Things in Ooltewah were slower. Rolling green hills and newly built subdivisions flanked the road where Parsons stood. Drivers waved and she returned the gesture. She posed for a woman who said she planned on getting her ashes that night at a service but wanted a picture of Parsons and the church sign reading "ASHES TO GO" to post on Facebook.

Parsons had considered participating in Ashes to Go in the past, but worried that fast-moving traffic outside the church might make it a hazard. Ooltewah Elementary opened this year down the street from St. Francis of Assisi, and Parsons hoped the reduced speed limit in the school zone would make drivers more likely to see her and stop for a few seconds. She had prayer cards in her pocket, ready.

"I can't do the whole service on the roadside, but we can do a piece of the service," Parsons said.

She says this kind of ministry is needed.

Years ago, before Ashes to Go started, Parsons encountered a hospice worker who didn't have time to make it to an Ash Wednesday service. The employee pressed her forehead against that of another hospice employee who had been to service, and still received a few pieces of the burnt palm leaves.

"There are many faithful people who are saying their prayers and really trying to repent when they do something they shouldn't and live as they should," Parsons said. "But sometimes the demands of this world are such that they can't set aside an hour to get to the church."

After a while cars passed fewer and farther between. School had started, and no one had stopped for ashes from Parsons. She returned to the church, undeterred. Maybe she had still made a difference. Maybe someone had paused, just for a second, to think about his or her own relationship with God.

"You throw the seed out there and leave the growth to God, and that's OK," Parsons said. "And if you're thinking about asking if I'm going to do this next year, the answer is yes."

Parsons went back out to the street, ashes in hand, just in time for school dismissal. This time two mothers stopped to be blessed. Both had seen her that morning.

One asked that her children receive the ashes, as well.

Contact staff writer Maura Friedman at mfriedman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6309.

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