Standing in black and white clerical garb, with a purple stole representing the season of Lent, the Rev. Michelle Boomgaard offered the ancient symbol of ashes as people approached, just as clergy were doing throughout the world on Ash Wednesday.
But the setting was anything but ancient -- on a sidewalk outside the Mt. Lebanon T station during the morning rush hour.
"Would you like ashes and more?" Rev. Boomgaard asked commuters.
Bishop David Zubik celebrates Ash Wednesday Mass
People flocked to St. Mary of Mercy Catholic Church this afternoon to receive ashes at the start of the Lenten season. (Video by Nate Guidry; 3/5/2014)
Some demurred. "Sorry, I have to catch a train," said one.
But others stopped, and Rev. Boomgaard imposed ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads, then offered a brief prayer and a card offering contact information and further conversation.
The brief encounters are part of a spreading national movement, often called "Ashes to Go," which began around 2007 in St. Louis with pastors seeking to take the ritual outside the walls of the church and into the streets. Since then, clerics have offered ashes in public squares, coffee shops, and even wine bars and ice cream stores.
Rev. Boomgaard said she hoped to reach people who aren't comfortable going to church and may not have anyone to talk to about their spiritual questions.
"Me standing out here and doing this is a way of meeting them," said Rev. Boomgaard, associate rector at St. Paul Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon.
And those who stopped to receive ashes and prayers appreciated the opportunity.
"It's amazing, especially for the people who work long hours," said Dusty Stuka of New Kensington, who works at a law office in Mt. Lebanon's Washington Road business district.
Given her long commute, she had wondered whether she would have time to make it to church.
"My gosh, how convenient is that, and you get a prayer to boot," she said. "That's like a neat package, and you don't have to feel bad about missing a really nice holy day."
Joyce Dawes of Upper St. Clair, who had come into town for an appointment, agreed.
"I'm all about reaching out and spreading the word in whatever way people are moved to do so," she said.
Some other Pittsburgh-area clergy also were taking ashes to public settings, and many more were doing so in church.
Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent -- a season of repentance, reflection and austerity -- for Roman Catholic as well as Episcopal and other Protestant churches that follow the church liturgical calendar.
The 40-day season (not counting Sundays) leads up to Easter.
Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches began observing Lent on Monday.
Rev. Boomgaard was reluctant at first to bring ashes to a public setting because she didn't want to be "just dabbing ashes and saying, 'That's it. Goodbye.'"
Instead, she gave participants a card containing a psalm and inviting them to chat during "office hours" she planned to hold each Wednesday during Lent at a coffee shop.
That, she said, is why she's calling her project "ashes and more."
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith. First Published March 5, 2014 12:53 PM