Ashes to Go a means to connect beyond church walls for Timonium cleric

Rev. Kristofer Lindh-Payne of Epiphany Episcopal takes his faith to the streets

  • Rev. Kristofer Lindh-Payne of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Timonium aims to connect with people outside church walls through programs like Ashes to Go and other outreach efforts.
Rev. Kristofer Lindh-Payne of Epiphany Episcopal Church in… (Staff photo by Brian Krista )
March 04, 2014|By Mary K. Tilghman

With a smudge of ash on his forehead and a friendly smile lighting up his face, the Rev. Kristofer Lindh-Payne will be spending Ash Wednesday greeting morning and evening commuters at the Ridgely Road light rail station.

After a hearty "Good morning," he will remind passersby that it's Ash Wednesday and offers to draw the traditional ash cross on their foreheads. An intimate ritual taking place in a public setting, it's an unusual way to start Christianity's solemn season of Lent. For Lindh-Payne, co-rector of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Timonium, it's a way to bring God to the street.

"It's out of the ordinary," he admitted. "It's meant to be conversational and gentle."

Ash Wednesday, which is tomorrow, is a day of introspection, as the priest prays, "From dust you have come and to dust you shall return."

"It's really pointing to God," the priest said. "I fall short. I'm broken. So I look to God."

Lindh-Payne first heard of Ashes to Go during a seminary class on creative preaching. He said the idea stuck with him even as he became associate rector of Epiphany. Quietly on Ash Wednesday 2011, he donned his black cassock, white surplice and black tippet and headed to the light rail station with his container of ashes.

"This felt like a call," he said, remembering that first Ash Wednesday. "A nudge to respond."

He's returned to the same light rail station every Ash Wednesday since. In 2013, people recognized him — and he recognized them. Lindh-Payne called it a "feeling of community."

He chose the Ridgely Road station because it has only one entrance. "I get to greet pretty much everyone," he said.

The imposition of ashes — really the ashes of last year's Palm Sunday palms — is an ancient Christian tradition to begin the 40 days of fasting and penance that lead to Easter Sunday.

Epiphany's light rail ministry takes this tradition out the churches and into people's daily lives, he said.

"For me this doesn't feel like a gimmicky thing at all," he said. "It's an opportunity to connect with people you might not ordinarily see."

During each of the past three Ash Wednesdays — this year is his fourth — he said he has been moved by his connections with people in a hurry.

Although some aren't interested in Ash Wednesday, Lindh-Payne said his presence serves as a reminder of the coming Lenten season. Some mention to him they'll be attending their own church. Others ask about Lent, or ashes. "Conversations around that have been very cool, too," he said.

Sometimes people pass him by and then return to ask him to pray for a loved one. On one particularly cold Ash Wednesday, someone brought him handwarmers.

Lindh-Payne said he always returns to the station for the afternoon commute. "That's my favorite part," he said. He'll recognize people he saw earlier in the day. "They are surprised when they are remembered," he said.

While he's at Ridgely, the Rev. Kathryn Wajda, Epiphany's co-rector, and several lay members of Epiphany will meet commuters at the Deereco Road light rail stops.

"I believe Ash Wednesday is an important day marking the beginning of Lent and reminding us of our mortality," Leslie Lobb, an Epiphany parishioner who lives in Parkton, said.

But she recognizes it can be difficult to get to church mid-week. "So we bring it to them," she said.

The response, she said, has been powerful.

"It's amazing how many people stop and thank us," she said.

Lobb who took part in Ashes to Go the last two years remembers a small group of Hispanic men who didn't speak English and shied away when she approached them. She said, "In nomine Padre (in the name of the Father, in Spanish)," and one man fell to his knees.

"It was such a moment of unity," she said. "God was what was in common with us."

In fact, Epiphany is one of about a dozen Episcopal congregations to offer ashes outside of the usual Ash Wednesday liturgy, according to the Rev. Daniel Webster, canon for evangelization and ministry development for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

Commuters at MARC train station, light rail stops, on street corners and in parking lots will be able to stop for a cross smudged in ash on their foreheads and a short prayer to begin their Lenten journey.

"It's a way to go out and meet the people where they are," Webster said.

There have been critics, some of them colleagues, who have dismissed this ashes outreach as "cheap grace" or a "fad."

Lindh-Payne welcomes the criticism. "I'm still interested in hearing what they have to say," he said, explaining that he's grateful it and for the opportunity to think and discuss matters of faith.

Canon Webster noted that this Ash Wednesday outreach has had powerful effects. At a MARC station in Brunswick in Frederick County, a commuter stopped to thank an Episcopal priest for being there. Her commute made getting to church difficult — but, Webster said, the woman began attending the Brunswick church.

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