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.
Webster noted that some oppose Ashes To Go as inappropriate — that ashes should be imposed in church.
"In the world we live in, a lot of people don't have the time to do that," he said.
In the Gospel, Webster said, "Jesus is always saying, 'Go.'"
That's how Lindh-Payne sees it. Noting that the Gospels rarely show Jesus in the synagogue, the priest observed, "He was on mountaintops and river sides."
It can be a nerve-wracking experience, added Lobb, who remembers feeling "very vulnerable" when she first arrived at the light rail station. She remembers the first person she talked to, a woman getting out of her car. Lobb approached her and offered ashes. "Once she said yes, I stopped being nervous about the time there," Lobb said.
She said she's heard criticism of the program — but recalled the importance of communion calls to the sick and shut-in.
Christianity, Lobb said, "needs to get beyond the walls of the church."
Results from the Ash Wednesday outreach can't be measured in new memberships at Epiphany — but Lindh-Payne said the church's many efforts do attract new members. "People have heard we're trying to do things that are outside the box," he said. "We're always trying to stretch beyond ourselves and that definitely appeals to people."
Outreach is an important part of Epiphany's mission, the priest explained. Neighbor-to-Neighbor has brought together several area churches, including St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, Timonium United Methodist Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Formed to help needy families beyond emergency assistance, Neighbor-to-Neighbor helps some families avoid homelessness and others to move out of shelters. About 100 families have been helped since the program began in 2009.
"It wouldn't have happened without ecumenical cooperation," Lindh-Payne said.
Another outreach, to young adults, began at the request of one of the few young adult parishioners at Epiphany. The program, now called Spiritually Thirsty, involves young people of several Episcopal churches who meet monthly for prayer and dinner or a drink.
More recently, Lindh-Payne has been taking a table at the Timonium Panera Bread early on Sunday, bringing with him a hand printed cardboard sign asking if diners would like him to pray for them or someone they love. The cardboard sign has prompted at least one Panera customer to think he was a homeless person. But it has also encouraged others, including his own parishioners, to ask for prayers. One person even stopped by with a bagel and coffee.
"It creates connectivity lost in the way we are spread out," he said.
A new offering during Lent is called TGIF. Held on Fridays, of course, he'll meet with parishioners at area establishments to discuss "What are you thankful for?" The first, on Friday, March 7, will be held 5:30-6:30 p.m. at Hightopps.
It's all part of what Lindh-Payne sees as a Gospel call to love your neighbor. "You can't love your neighbor if you don't know your neighbor first," he said.
He said he finds "person-to-person connectivity" especially important during Lent.
"We're all hungry. We're all broken," Lindh-Payne said. "We're not alone in that."