The Rev. Matt Sipe began his Ash Wednesday at a coffee shop in Delano, offering ashes to folks sipping their morning brew.
The Rev. Christine Bellefeuille started the morning in the parking lot of her Stillwater church, smudging ashes on the foreheads of a few folks who pulled in before work.
The lunch hour crowd headed to a Maple Grove Lutheran Church church where the Rev. Christine Chiles offered prayers, pamphlets and ashes to drivers stopping by the church entrance on this first day of Lent.
Dubbed Ashes to Go, it's part of a recent trend to bring this religious ritual out of the church and into the streets. It's been unfolding in bus stops, downtown centers and church parking lots across the nation.
While some critics call it "Ash Wednesday Lite," local religious leaders say it's an important way to reach busy parents and workers who don't have the time to attend a religious service and receive ashes there.
"It's an opportunity for people to participate in something meaningful ... without having to be in a building, in a sanctuary, at an appointed hour," said Bellefeuille, of Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater.
Minnesota is home to about 1 million Catholics — the most faithful adherents of Ash Wednesday ritual — and another 2 million mainline Protestants, many of whom increasingly embrace the ancient tradition that kicks off the Christian season of Lent leading to Easter.
Chiles, who has been delivering drive-through ashes for five years, is among them. On Wednesday, she stood by the entrance to the church parking lot, the tools of her trade reflecting the changing nature of the holy day. The table at her side contained a bowl of ashes, a basket of pamphlets with titles such as "Lent is Trending," a large Bible, and a box of Pampers wet wipes.
Gabrielle Wiegand, a young mother from the church, pulled up in her SUV with a sleeping infant in the back seat and a very awake 4-year-old in the front. She explained that it's hard to attend an evening religious service with youngsters, and she's grateful for a drive-through option.
The challenge was evident even during her brief encounter. As Chiles solemnly pressed the ashes on the mother's forehead, uttering the words, "Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return," Wiegand's leery son proclaimed, "I DON'T WANT ONE!"
Parents with older children have their own scheduling challenges, said Paige Karno, who pulled up a few minutes later. With her daughter's sports and after-school activities, it's been hard to attend Ash Wednesday services, she said.
"This is the greatest thing ever," said Karno, who hopped out of the car to hug Chiles. "The church brings faith to you. You don't have to miss out. Thank you!"
Others driving through Wednesday included an elderly church member, more parents, and a woman Chiles hadn't met before who broke down in tears after sharing a life crisis.
26 states and growing
Ashes to Go took off about six years ago. While churches in cities such as St. Louis and San Francisco had been experimenting with the ministry, the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago launched an ashes outreach in 2011, inviting its congregations to bring Ash Wednesday to train stops, coffee shops and other high-traffic areas.
The publicity nudged dozens of other churches across the country. There is now an Ashes to Go website, offering resources to churches, contacts, lists of many locations — which now include at least 26 states — and more.
Sipe, the pastor at Delano United Methodist Church, was among the event's early fans. As a young minister serving a suburban Chicago church, he recalls heading to downtown Chicago train stops that attracted thousands of people during the morning rush. Said Sipe: "It was a big deal."
In Minnesota, Sipe puts on his minister's collar and spends a few hours at a downtown coffee shop on Ash Wednesdays, casually asking folks stopping by if they'd like some ashes. Some of the "unchurched" customers don't know what to make of it, he said, offering comments like, "I'm not sure. What's this about?"
Others are happy for the convenience, he said.
The practice has been embraced by Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran and some Catholic churches nationally, in various formats. The Sisters of Visitation in Minneapolis, for example, gave it whirl in their north Minneapolis neighborhood a few years ago. Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Rochester is among the churches that distributes ashes near a busy downtown bus stop.
Although few critics have emerged in Minnesota, Ashes to Go has its skeptics. Catholic leaders, for example, generally believe that ashes should be delivered in the more thoughtful context of a religious service. The Rev. Michael Sniffen, of the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation in New York, was among the early critics posting their concerns online.
"It's hard to make a right beginning of Lent while on your way to Target after work," Sniffen wrote in the Episcopal Cafe website. "If one wishes to repent, they might prefer to speak with you privately or offer a prayer of the church in a less hurried manner."
But Minnesota's Ashes to Go adherents firmly believe it's important to meet people "where they are." Sipe, like the others, says the message of Ash Wednesday is so powerful that it needs to be shared.
Remembering that we will all die, said Sipe, "gives us a sense of purpose in life, and reminds us not to waste it."