Five years ago, the Rev. Teresa K.M. Danieley had an epiphany of sorts.
If people can grab breakfast on the go or pay a bill from their cellphone, she thought, why shouldn't they be able to get their ashes in a flash?
That's why, on Ash Wednesday 2007, Danieley planted herself in full priestly regalia at a busy intersection in St. Louis, smudging the sign of the cross on the foreheads of bicyclists, drivers and bus passengers.
This year, at least 49 Episcopal parishes across 12 states offered ashes to passers-by at train stations, bus stops and college campuses Wednesday as Danieley's “Ashes to Go” concept continues to spread nationwide.
In Oklahoma, the Canterbury Association, a ministry on the campus of Oklahoma State University, participated in the outreach, and 32 people received ashes through the effort, organizers said. Students, faculty, staff and visitors were invited to receive ashes and a prayer during two periods throughout the day on Wednesday at the Chi-O Clock on campus.
“We live in a time where we can't just sit back and wait for people to come to us,” said Bishop Stacy F. Sauls, chief operating officer for the New York-based Episcopal Church. “We have to meet people where they actually are.”
Danieley, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in St. Louis, said the idea was born in a Bible study discussion in late 2006 or early 2007. That first year, she offered a brief Ash Wednesday liturgy to about 75 or 100 people who crossed her path.
“It started sort of half-jokingly, but it became something pretty profound,” Danieley said. “It's fulfilling a spiritual need but also a pragmatic need. It's showing flexibility in an institution often seen as very inflexible.”
Kathleen Dimmich, 26, a real estate agent, became an active St. John's parishioner after getting ashes from Danieley in 2009.
“I had been in St. Louis for maybe a month and hadn't found a church yet,” Dimmich said. The mobile Ash Wednesday program showed that St. John's “was obviously an active parish in my neighborhood, which was important to me.”
The same day Dimmich first experienced Ashes to Go, the Rev. Emily A. Mellott held a 7 a.m. Ash Wednesday service at Calvary Episcopal Church in Lombard, Ill. Only three people showed up.
In 2010, Mellott decided to give Danieley's idea a try and offered Ash Wednesday ashes during the morning rush hour. Within a year, she had 25 area churches participating.
Last year, the Episcopal Church Foundation asked Mellott to write an Ashes to Go resource guide. It generated so much interest that Mellott created