The Rev. Emily Mellott is becoming a common sight at the Lombard Metra station on Ash Wednesday, marking crosses on commuters' foreheads and bringing the tradition signaling the beginning of Lent into people's daily lives.
While Ashes to Go has had a suburban presence for three years, this year its reach is expanding much further -- to 80 churches in 21 states -- as a result of Mellott's efforts to turn the idea into a national movement.
"It goes back to the first experience, just being surprised at how excited, how hungry people are for this," said Mellott, pastor of Calvary Episcopal Church in Lombard. "A lot of people are just so glad that this is here."
After Ashes to Go spread from three suburban churches in 2010 to 26 congregations across the region in 2011, Mellott said she received questions from a handful of others.
Does a congregation need permission from police or municipal officials to offer Ashes to Go? How does it work? Where is a good location?
Mellott decided to create a website for the movement, listing answers to those questions and more, and allowing churches to post the location of their outdoor ash distribution.
"A lot of churches are hungry for this, too, to get out of the habit and the walls of the church," she said. "This is too good to keep to ourselves; this needs to be everywhere."
In Lombard, Don Feeley said he was grateful for the convenience of Ashes to Go as he stopped for a prayer just seconds before his inbound train pulled up.
"Is it this easy?" Feeley asked Mellott before receiving ashes. "I have a packed calendar today; I was just thinking about that."
Another Lombard commuter, Bob Luberda, said receiving ashes was "a good way to start the day," before heading to work in Chicago.
"It's cross-denominational -- that's good because I'm Catholic," Luberda said. "It's a Christian tradition for centuries so I think it's a good thing."
Marking ashes in the shape of a cross on one's forehead at the beginning of preparations for Easter is a sign of mortality used since the Middle Ages.
"In the Episcopal Church's liturgy for the day, the imposition of ashes serves as our invitation to repentance, and a response to our encounter with the word of God," Mellott wrote on the new website, ashestogo.org.
Bringing the ceremony out of churches to train stations, street corners and coffee shops helps reach those too busy to attend a church service in the middle of the week, Mellott said.
Carla Black of Lombard said receiving ashes before her morning commute freed up the lunch break she would usually spend at a service.
"I don't have to do that now and it's really convenient," Black said. "I'm glad you're here. It's a surprise -- a pleasant surprise."