LINDEN, NJ — The Rev. Peter De Franco looked slightly out of place in his robes as people rushed passed him to buy train tickets during the morning rush hour on Feb. 14.
“Good morning! Would you like ashes?” De Franco asked commuters as they walked toward the train platform around 8:30 a.m. on Ash Wednesday.
Some politely declined and at least one passerby declared she was “a nice Jewish girl.” Others paused to receive a cross on their forehead as a sign of their faith that marks the start of Lent, a period for Christians marked by fasting and reflection that precedes Easter.
De Franco, of St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church on Dewitt Terrace, said more than 200 people received ashes at the station that morning.
“A lot of people want to do something to start Lent, but because of their work commitments, they can’t make it to church,” De Franco said. “So we decided we’ll take church to the people and do it this way.”
Other Episcopalian ministers and priests were stationed at several conveniently placed “Ashes to Go” locations, including coffee shops, shopping centers and street corners.
The trend isn’t entirely new. The initiative was created in 2007 by the Rev. Teresa K. M. Danieley of St. John’s Episcopal Church in St. Louis, Mo., according to the Episcopal Diocese of Newark’s website.
De Franco has been working at the Linden church since December, but said he has administered ashes to people at a train station in Clifton for the about the past eight years.
“It’s really convenient,” Johanna Johnson said quickly of the service, seconds before her New York-bound train reached the platform. She had just received her ashes moments before.
The Rev. David Lawson-Beck, who was also distributing ashes to commuters at the train station, said it’s not just a matter of convenience. More and more, he said, he’s seen how the church has tried to build around people’s lives as their schedules become more demanding.
“It’s evolving,” Lawson-Beck said, noting that the church has started using social media to reach more people lately.
The Ashes to Go event for the St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church was advertised on Facebook as an event, a sign of the times.
The modern spin on the rite is a mostly Episcopalian movement, although some other denominations have adopted similar practices. Catholics usually distribute ashes at a Mass, although Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation.
De Franco, however, said the practice doesn’t lessen the meaning of Lent. He also handed out small pamphlets to passersby that included several prayers and readings.
“When Jesus went out, he wasn’t only preaching in synagogues and in the temple,” De Franco said. “He also preached right on the street. So, you know, that’s just following Jesus’ example.”
The St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church also held traditional Ash Wednesday services at 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.