Suburban commuters receive 'Ashes to Go'
In today's rush-rush, WiFi-connected, everything-to-go society, here's an unexpected twist: Ashes to Go.
That's the slightly irreverent name for a most solemn religious tradition -- the distribution of ashes to the faithful on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
Rev. Emily Mellott and other Episcopal clergy stood under patio umbrellas in a misty rain at the Lombard Metra station beginning at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday morning to place ashes on the foreheads of commuters.
One of them was Kimberly Cooper of Lombard, who was on her way to a convention in Chicago. "I couldn't get to church today," she said.
"We knew a lot of people can't get to church today, so we brought church to the train station," Mellott replied, as she prepared to mark a cross on Cooper's forehead and hand her a damp pamphlet about the symbolism of the ashes.
Ashes were distributed at train stations throughout the area part of a wider effort throughout the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago -- inspired by Mellott's first Ashes to Go last year -- to bring Ash Wednesday to people at train stations, street corners and coffee shops. All told, 26 congregations planned to have prayer teams at Metra stations, including ones in Arlington Heights, Aurora, Elgin, Geneva, Glen Ellyn, Lisle and St. Charles.
Kerri-Ellen Kelly of Wheeling did a double-take when she saw the event at the Arlington Heights Metra station, but said was amazed and grateful there was an Ash Wednesday for commuters. Her job and after-work commitments in a choral group prevented her from visiting church.
Rev. M.E. Eccles, associate rector with St. Simon's Episcopal Church in Arlington Heights, said about 35 commuters received ashes.
"It was successful because we touched people," she said.
At the Geneva Metra station, clergy from St. Charles Episcopal Church of St. Charles set up posts at both ends of the station, including signs that said "Ash Wednesday ashes here."
"It's been great," said the Rev. Liz Meade. Some people avoided making eye contact, lowering their heads and passing by. But others thanked the clergy.
Carolyn Shannon of St. Charles was appreciative of the effort. She normally would receive ashes at St. Patrick Catholic Church in St. Charles, but is busy commuting downtown for a conference this week.
"I think this is wonderful. Otherwise, I would not have the opportunity to participate," she said.
About 35 people did likewise at the Waukegan Metra station.
"I think it's great that it's very convenient, said Chris Johnson of Gurnee. "Normally I would go to lunch, I work downtown, so I'd go to lunch and go to church there. But I'm glad I have it done for the day and it makes me feel good to start Lent, Ash Wednesday. I never miss."
But some do, and that's just a fact of our busy lives.
"The demands of our 21st century lives really don't accommodate going to church in the middle of Wednesday," said Mellott, rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Lombard.
Ashes to Go, she said, "is a quirky but meaningful way to meet God in the middle of our daily business."
Mellott was inspired last year to give out ashes at the Lombard Metra station after church members told her they regretted being unable to attend an Ash Wednesday service. Clergy at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn and another Episcopal Church in the Southwest suburbs initiated similar efforts.
"I talked to the Episcopal Bishop of Chicago and he said we really need to make this an intentional thing," Mellott said. Bishop Jeffrey D. Lee agreed, and will be giving out ashes himself at the corner of Huron and Rush streets in Chicago.
"I hope many of us will be bold in offering this ministry to people outside of the walls of our churches," he wrote in a Feb. 17 letter.
The outreach effort was a surprise to commuter Rebecca DePorter of Lombard.
"To be honest, I didn't know they were doing it," she said after she received ashes. "It's just convenience. Typically, I would go to Mass, but with three children, I don't know if I have the time."
Ashes, placed in a cross on the forehead, are a powerful symbol of man's mortality and an invitation to repentance, "changing our lives and coming back to God," Mellott said.
"I see it in people's eyes," Mellott said. "It changes your day."
Last year, 37 people from several different religious traditions received ashes at the Lombard train station. This year, Mellott's efforts boosted the tally to 107.
People don't have to be a member of any particular faith to participate in Ash Wednesday, but some asked which church Mellott was from before accepting or denying ashes.
"The ashes work," she said, "whatever your tradition."
Daily Herald staffers George LeClaire, Susan Sarkauskas, Paul Valade and Marie Wilson contributed to this story.