ANDOVER — A tradition going back nearly 1,500 years took on a modern twist Wednesday when two pastors from South Church took to the streets to administer ashes to people getting their morning coffee or hopping the commuter rail to Boston.
Dana Allen Walsh and Alex Shea Will, co-pastors of their Central Street parish, spent about 90 minutes giving out ashes at the Andover train depot, greeting commuters taking the 7:06 a.m. train to Boston. Then they greeted coffee lovers on Main Street, making stops at Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks.
A total of 15 people received ashes at the three locations, Will said. He acknowledged the recipient number was not high, but stressed the ashes-to-go concept startled some people while others simply weren't interested.
"This concept has been gaining traction across the country," Will said, noting that it was the first time his church offered ashes outside the church building and he is already committed to going on the road with ashes again next year.
He said reactions to his ashes-to-go were varied but overall, "it was a nice response."
"We heard everything," he said, referring to comments from passersby and those who did agree to partake in the custom. "Some people were shy and we certainly understood that. Some were not comfortable. But there were beautiful responses and lots of 'thank yous.'"
Will said the most memorable thank-you happened when a man pulled over his car near the commuter parking lot and said he had "talked to God last night and was looking for a sign of hope. Then he said we were his sign of hope. That man made this all worthwhile."
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent in the Christian calendar and has been observed by various Christian denominations for centuries.
Typically, ash-seekers go to their church for the ashes, which are put on the forehead in the sign of a cross as a clergy member says “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The South Church co-pastors wanted to assure people that Ash Wednesday isn't just for Catholics.
“While many well-intentioned Protestants assume that Ash Wednesday is a Catholic holiday, that is definitely not the case in 2016," Will said. "More and more Protestant churches have been offering Ash Wednesday services over the past 20 years. Much of this change has been led by those who don’t believe rites and rituals belong to specific denominations but rather to the whole of the Church.”
He and Walsh hit the road with their ashes reminding people that Lent does not have to be a dour and depressing time in one's life.
"Rather, Lent urges us to think about our lives - not so we might fear what is to come, but rather so we might live more fully in the present,” Will said. "Our church may be 305 years old, but our thinking isn’t. This is only one of the ways we hope that South Church will feel like a vibrant and relevant piece of the Andover community for years to come."
South Church is part of the United Church of Christ Congregation. Will has served as co-pastor at South Church since July.
The church is located at 41 Central St. For more information, see southchurch.com.