Ashes to Go: Minister hit streets to reach out to faithful

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Jesus met people exactly where they were. He didn't sit in comfort and wait for them to find him. He visited the marketplace. He hit the streets.

So the energetic Rev. Tom Warne was delighted -- and damp -- as he offered "ashes to go" on the sidewalk and in the parking lot of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd on what's known as Ash Wednesday. That's the beginning of Lent, a time of reflection and repentance in many Christian sects that culminates in the Holy Week leading up to Easter. The tradition is to smudge people's foreheads with ashes in the sign of the cross as a reminder of mortality -- and eternity.

Warne came outside and stood, smiling and waving his umbrella and his folding sidewalk sign, as the rain increased at about 3 p.m.

There wasn't a whole lot of drive-up and pedestrian demand for ash smudges under skies that would tend to smear those smudges like running makeup. "Crazy, huh?" Warne said.

Maybe not. Warne said his first taker, early in the day, was a woman leaving an "anonymous" group recovery meeting at the church. Warne smudged her forehead and asked if there was anyone in her life he could pray for. She said her son was in trouble and needed the prayer. So they prayed for him together, outside on the asphalt.

"If nothing else happens for that woman, right off the street, it's been a good day," Warne said.

Later on came Gary and Bev Hatzenbeler, who'd just returned to town from a beach trip to Gearhart, Ore., and were stopping by for their smudges on the way home. The couple just rolled their car windows down and presented their faces, but never left their car, as Warne did the deed and intoned "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

"Convenience" is exactly what Gary said he liked about it.

"I thought it sounded kind of crazy at first, but our church is friendly and not pretentious," Bev added. "We really believe in meeting people where they are. Tom has pushed us in that direction."

According to the website AshesToGo.org, the whole idea was born in 2007 in St. Louis. It took firm hold in Chicago in 2010 and didn't take long to blossom into an international Ashes To Go movement. The website says ashes were offered on street corners, bus stops and other such public spots in 31 states as well as Canada, the United Kingdom and South Africa in 2013.

"As the kids say today, it went viral," Warne said. "The message is the same forever, but the times require that the message be taken out of church and into the streets."