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'Ashes to go' in Wauwatosa give passers-by a moment to reflect

(From left) Rev. Gary Manning, Rev. Jim Rand and Trinity Episcopal Church Deacon Coleen Smith stand at the intersection of Wauwatosa and Harmonee Avenues on Wednesday in Wauwatosa. Several local priests, reverends, and pastors were spending the day applying ashes on the second annual Ashes To Go observance of Ash Wednesday.

(From left) Rev. Gary Manning, Rev. Jim Rand and Trinity Episcopal Church Deacon Coleen Smith stand at the intersection of Wauwatosa and Harmonee Avenues on Wednesday in Wauwatosa. Several local priests, reverends, and pastors were spending the day applying ashes on the second annual Ashes To Go observance of Ash Wednesday. Photo By Peter Zuzga

Feb. 13, 2013

"You are dust, and to dust you will return," said Pastor Jim Rand of Wauwatosa Presbyterian Church, applying a dab of ashes to the forehead of Merrick Wells.

Rand is one of a group of pastors who take to the streets on Ash Wednesday, offering "Ashes to go," as their signs says, on the sidewalk outside Village Faire, where Starbucks is located.

The ashes signify mortality, Rand said.

"It reminds me of the most amazing thing that's happened in Christianity, which is the resurrection," Merrick Wells said. "I mean that is the most amazing story ever, besides Christmas, besides Jesus being born."

"And you really can't have that without the mortality," Rand said.

Wells, a Congregationalist, and his coffee companions Frank Knoll and Joe Meloy, both Catholics, all had their foreheads dabbed and say they do it every year.

An ecumenical movement

"This has been kind of a grassroots movement within the Episcopal Church within the last few years," Pastor Gary Manning of Trinity Episcopal Church said. "It sort of started out east, New York, Philadelphia, those places, but it's really kind of catching on. And the spin that we've added here in Wauwatosa is to make it ecumenical, so we have a Presbyterian minister, and the Methodist minister, the Roman Catholic priest will be here later."

This is the second year for ashes to go in Wauwatosa. It's daylong event, beginning by 8:30 in the morning and running right until 4 p.m., with a break for lunch, Manning said.

Throughout the day, hundreds stop for ashes.

"This place is really hopping about 3 o'clock in the afternoon."

Rand said some people ask for a prayer, and last year some shed tears.

"Last year we said prayers for people who had loved ones dying, people who were sick," he said.

"We talked to people a lot about what the ashes meant and all of that," Manning said. "So it's just sort of grab 'em and go. My experience last year with people who came up for this, they know what this is, so it doesn't require a whole lot of explaining."

Ease of participation

"There is a lot of sense of people (thinking), 'I know what it's about, I wouldn't go to my own church, I don't have time in my day, or something like that, or I just haven't been going to church for a while,'" Rand said, "and yet there was this wonderful sense of, 'Oh, I can participate in this.'"

The ashes they employ are the remains of the palms they used on Palm Sunday last year.

"We mix them with the oil we use when we pray for people who are sick," Manning said. You might call it "spiritual recycling."

This is a busy time for any pastor. Lent means midweek services, and Easter week in many churches is the biggest week of the year. Yet both Rand and Manning had their sermons ready for upcoming services. Rand said at his church they will be preaching a series during Lent on "bad boys of the Bible" - Judas, Herod, Pilate, the Devil, and others - and how Jesus responded to them.

Manning said he would preaching that night on the ashes, "and about how Lent is a time to remind us that this life is a gift, and it's not necessarily about lengthening the years of our life, but putting more life in our years."

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