Commuters in Vancouver had a chance for drive-by penitence on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.
St. Anne’s Episcopal Church offered morning commuters ashes to go at the Fisher’s Landing Transit Center in east Vancouver, as many people were boarding buses to Portland. The Rev. Jessie Smith, along with the Rev. Grethe Barber and a couple of laypeople from the Washougal church, gave out cards with information about Lent and smudged the sign of the cross on people’s foreheads. It’s an ancient sign of mortality and repentance.
“We know there’s a lot of people and neighbors who don’t come to church, so we bring church to them,” Smith said.
She imposed the sign of the cross while saying, “You are dust and from dust you shall return.”
“People who know about it seem to appreciate that we’re there and understand,” Smith said. Seeing Smith in her clergy garb jogs the memory for some people who’ve forgotten it’s Ash Wednesday. “There are some who are skeptical and talk to us. There are some who seem taken aback.”
Smith was there from 6 a.m. until about 7:45 a.m.
“We have regulars now. After three years, people are looking for us,” she said.
St. Anne’s has two Ash Wednesday masses at its church, as does the Church of the Good Shepherd in Vancouver’s Ellsworth Springs neighborhood. In between masses, during the evening rush hour, the Rev. Tom Warne offered ashes to go at the corner of Southeast 10th Street and Ellsworth Road.
“People are amazed that I’m actually standing out on the boulevard,” Warne said.
It’s important for the church to occasionally get out of its buildings, hit the streets and be visible, he said. Bearing the sign of the cross on one’s forehead is, after all, an outward, visible sign of faith. Warne also asked people if there’s anything or anyone that needs prayer. If yes, they’ll pray together right there on the side of the street.
“That’s the church at its best, where we meet people where they’re at,” he said.
Ashes to go is an Episcopal tradition believed to have started six years ago in the Midwest, where priests would offer their services at commuter train stations. Warne has been doing this for five years. He said ashes to go reflects changing trends in religious practice; these days, a lot of people don’t get dressed up and go to church every Sunday.
“We’re way far from that, especially out here in the Northwest. It’s not the Bible Belt out here,” Warne said.
Several Episcopal churches throughout Western Washington hosted ashes to go on Wednesday. Lent is a 40-day period of discipline and introspection that culminates in Easter Sunday.