Episcopal church leaders across the suburbs, the nation, and even the world on Wednesday will help commuters at train stations mark the beginning of Lent with a visible symbol of human mortality -- ashes.
The "Ashes to Go" movement got its start locally in 2009 and 2010 as churches in Lombard and Glen Ellyn took the traditional imposition of ashes outside church walls and onto Metra platforms in their respective towns.
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The movement may have been taking shape in other regions, but Rev. Emily Mellott, pastor of Calvary Episcopal Church in Lombard, said Chicago-area churches have been key to its spread.
"Churches in the Chicago area have made a real effort to invite other people to do this," said Mellott, who gave Ashes to Go its name and created a website to keep it organized. "We talked to each other about what the experience was like and realized this was not something that should remain local."
Last year, Ashes to Go was offered in 21 states, and this year, Mellott said she has heard from church leaders in two other countries confirming they plan to begin their own version of the tradition. Residents of London, England, and Cape Town, South Africa, will be the first internationals to receive their Ash Wednesday blessing on the move through Ashes to Go, she said.
"Every year, people discover us for the first time and are amazed the church has come outside its normal walls," Mellott said.
Mellott has become a regular at Lombard's downtown Metra station each Ash Wednesday, dispensing ashes, prayers and pamphlets to commuters who otherwise would not have time to attend a church service.
"I think the train station works perfectly," she said. "It's perfect for the point of Ashes to Go, which is the church will meet you right in the middle of your ordinary life, and there's almost nothing more ordinary than the commute."
Rev. George Smith, rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, said he began offering ashes remotely about the same time Mellott's church did, and with the same goal of ministering to people during their daily routines.
"We wanted it to be easy for them to fit in the observance of Ash Wednesday that would fit in their lives," Smith said.
In a secular environment such as a train station, Smith said representatives of his church and Lutheran churches in Glen Ellyn strive to make people comfortable if they want to receive ashes -- or not.
"We've set it up in a way that people can approach the table. If they want to walk by, there's no shame or pressure," Smith said. "The important thing is, it's a low-key invitation without pressure."
His church, at 393 N. Main St., will remain open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. allowing people to stop in and receive ashes from a priest stationed in the library even if they can't attend one of the services planned for 7 a.m., noon and 7:30 p.m.
Wherever and whenever one receives ashes on the first day of Lent, the blessing remains the same:
"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
"It's a powerful reminder of our mortality," Smith said, "and where we come from."