They or their loved ones are dealing with cancer, broken marriages and unemployment.
They wouldn’t have minded sitting through a church service while marking the beginning of Lent on Wednesday by having their foreheads marked with ashes — but work demands or physical problems prevented them from doing so.
Those were the kinds of people to whom the Rev. Tim Smith, of Munholland United Methodist Church in Metairie, dispensed ashes on Wednesday in “to go” fashion.
“The pain — the struggle — is real for a lot of people,” said Smith, who was among several Christian spiritual leaders in the New Orleans area giving ashes to hundreds of men, women and children who walked, cycled or drove up to them and had only a few seconds to spare for a blessing. “The church needs to get outside its buildings and meet people where they are. This was an opportunity to do that.”
The “ashes to go” concept at churches such as Munholland United, Christ Church Cathedral in Uptown New Orleans and Christ Episcopal Church in Slidell isn’t brand- new, but it hasn’t been around locally all that long either.
The Rev. Harry Jenkins, of Christ Episcopal, began offering ashes to go to people who drove up to his church in Slidell’s Olde Towne District in 2013.
Christ Church Cathedral, an Episcopalian church on St. Charles Avenue, started the practice last year at the behest of its dean, the Rev. David duPlantier, who on Wednesday said he was partially inspired by the numerous banking industry professionals who explained to him that they wanted their foreheads marked on Ash Wednesday but didn’t have time to sit through a full service when he was a minister at Trinity Church on Broadway and Wall Street in Manhattan about 25 years ago.
This year was the first time Munholland United offered ashes to go, Smith said.
Many people seized the opportunity.
Smith said he and his colleagues gave ashes drive-thru style from Munholland United’s parking lot to more than 500 people. The line of cars drawn to the church at 1201 Metairie Road pushed traffic back to a set of railroad tracks about a half-mile away, and some drivers had to wait up to 10 minutes before getting their ashes.
DuPlantier estimated Christ Church Cathedral had dispensed ashes to more than 350 people in the morning alone at its St. Charles Avenue building and two other sites, Lafayette Square and the entrance to Audubon Park.
All received a short blessing (“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”) as well as cards that explained Ash Wednesday was both the beginning of the 40-day season of fasting and penitence ahead of Easter and a reminder of people’s mortality and need for repentance, the Rev. Bridget Tierney said.
Some of those who took advantage of Christ Church Cathedral’s and Munholland United’s ashes to go had ordinary motives for doing so.
Leslie Birke, 40, had a series of doctor’s appointments Wednesday morning and was headed to work in the early afternoon when she saw an “ashes to go” sign at Christ Church Cathedral. She immediately pulled over, had her forehead marked with ashes by the Rev. Steven Roberts on the porch of the church and walked back to her car moments later.
“I feel a slight tinge of guilt that I should’ve sat through the (service) — I should’ve figured out how to make time,” Birke said of accepting ashes to go. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t have done it otherwise, and it definitely was helpful for me.”
Tierney said that among those she served at Lafayette Square were 10 people from California and another four or five folks from Texas who were flying back home after visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras. “They just didn’t have a chance to go to church,” she remarked. “I think it is better to be in your church if you can be, but lots of people just can’t because of their work schedule or their traveling … and (they) don’t have a church in New Orleans.”
Others, though, had more dramatic motives for being thankful about the ashes to go.
Before dispensing his ashes Wednesday, Smith made it a point to ask how he could pray for the people with whom he spoke. “There was a preponderance” of people coping with serious illnesses, divorce or recently lost jobs, affecting them directly or people they cared about, he said.
Another woman told Smith it caused her significant physical pain to walk.
“She was so blessed to be able to get ashes in her car,” Smith said.
That, Smith added, was reason enough to convince him to make ashes to go available again in the future.