Churches reach out during Lenten season


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Many Lenten practices are centuries old, but some Christian churches are introducing changes to serve the needs of their contemporary communities.

Commuters at the Mt. Lebanon T Station who couldn’t make it to church on Ash Wednesday were offered the option to receive ashes on the sidewalk outside of the station by the Rev. Michelle Boomgaard, associate rector at St. Paul Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon. And she had some takers.

“I recognize how crazy people’s lives are today and how difficult it is to make time for nearly anything," she said. "The thing I can do as a priest is to make myself available to the community.”

On the first day of Lent, which fell on March 5 this year, ashes are placed on the foreheads of Christians in the shape of a cross as a reminder of their mortality and to recognize the beginning of a season of penance, prayer and reflection in preparation for Easter.

Last year, Bishop Dorsey McConnell of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh stationed himself in Market Square to locally initiate the practice of distributing ashes outside a church. The concept began in a Midwest Episcopalian diocese several years ago. Dubbed “Ashes to Go,” it has a website listing 11 participating Pennsylvania churches, mostly Episcopal, plus a couple of Lutheran congregations. Public transportation stations are a popular site, as are public squares and college campuses.

Rev. Boomgaard wanted to expand the concept, so she passed out invitations to join her during “office hours” at a local coffee shop on consecutive Wednesdays.

The idea came from her sense that there are some for whom “walking into a church is a little intimidating. The whole point is to be less intimidating and more available.” The location was a natural for Rev. Boomgaard, who has been with the diocese for two and a half years and at St. Paul’s for just under two. “I have a great love for coffee anyway, and I’m a somewhat familiar face” at the coffee shop.

So far she’s had “a lot of little conversations about the weather” and other general subjects, but they may have meant more to the persons engaging. “I don’t know what was in their heart at the time.”

Rev. Boomgaard settled on Wednesday mornings because that was when she first encountered people and it made sense to return at the same day and time. She added early evening hours because it was more likely that people would have time after their working day to talk.

Other changes at St. Paul Episcopal Church are Quiet Days and fish fry innovations. The church began accepting online ordering this year for its Lenten Fish Fries.

“It was a logical next step for us," she said. "We already had takeout.” The menu has a traditional fried fish dinner and giant fish sandwich, but also a dinner of baked salmon in wine. “We wanted to have something for those who came for the fried fish but also for those who were watching their cholesterol. There is something here for everybody, and everything is accessible. We have an elevator for those who can’t walk up the stairs so they still have the ability to join us for worship. We have family-friendly services with teens playing drums, and traditional services with Bach for those for whom classical music is their pathway to God.”

Rev. Boomgaard began the Quiet Days as a response to “our ever-hectic lives,” inspired by a similar program she experienced in a parish long before she was ordained. “We jam as much as we can into the moment and don’t make time for eternity and the bigger questions. Sometimes we fill schedules so that we don’t have to make time for them. Everyone’s guilty of that. I’m as guilty as anyone else.”

There’s also “something very profound about being quiet in a group of people. I’m single and it’s easy for me to be quiet at home — just turn off the radio and TV. There’s something very different about being quiet in a community.”

Ashes were also offered on Ash Wednesday in an alternative space — Cannon Coffee in the city's Brookline neighborhood.

The Rev. Marsha Sebastian, pastor of the Brookline Boulevard United Presbyterian Church, and the Rev. Christina Ingold, pastor of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, also in Brookline, distributed ashes and conversed with participants.

Coffee shop owner Nathan Mallory, a Titusville native who opened the coffee shop after serving time in the U.S. Air Force, is a civic booster who was designated a “40 Under 40” honoree by Pittsburgh Magazine in 2012. One of his interests is breaking barriers between what he refers to as “civic silos” and the worshiping community.

“How can we get worship outside of the four walls of the churches?” he asked. “We decided to try it. The only way to know how it will go is to try it.”

This was the first such event at the coffee shop and it was advertised only through social media the day before.

“Eighteen people came to the table to take ashes that day. It was also neat to watch people interact. Even if they didn’t take ashes, they may have gone to the office and told people what they saw at the coffee shop. Maybe someone would say they were going to an evening service at their church and someone else would say ‘I’ll go with you. I haven’t been for years.’”

The event was scheduled for two hours and the pastors stayed for four because people kept asking questions, Mr. Mallory said.

Next on the schedule is a Good Friday event, still in the planning stage, that will take the Stations of the Cross into the neighborhood.

Mr. Mallory isn’t affiliated with a church and considers himself aligned with the civic side of the church-on-the-streets equation. He is vice president of the Brookline Chamber of Commerce and serves on the boards of the South Pittsburgh Development Corporation and Creedmoor Court, low-income housing for seniors.

“The word of the day in Brookline these days is ecumenical. We’re doing a cultural push to change the accessibility and the identity [of the churches].”

While some religious leaders are pursuing ways that will attract more parishioners and congregations to participate in Lenten observances, the majority of local churches in the heavily Catholic-populated Pittsburgh region continue to offer traditional programs such as weekly stations of the cross, films, missions, lectures, vespers, dinners, rosaries, adorations and passion plays.   


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925. First Published March 20, 2014 12:00 AM

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