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New London — Robert Kearney of Mystic had just left his doctor's office Wednesday morning and was heading home when he spotted two people dressed in religious vestments standing by the train station.
A sandwich board in front of Grace Barnum and Ron Steed, both parishioners of St. James Episcopal Church, read "Ashes to Go."
Kearney pulled over his car and stood before Steed, who dipped his thumb into a small jar and smudged the sign of the cross in ashes on Kearney's forehead.
"I've never seen this before, but I think it's outstanding," said Kearney, who attends St. Patrick Church in Mystic. "The way the world is going, 'round and 'round and 'round, I think it's good they're keeping up."
Kearney, who said he wanted ashes but wasn't sure of the hours they would be offered at his own church, was one of several people who took advantage of the St. James program aimed at helping Christians observe the first day of Lent.
Lent, the six weeks leading up to Easter Sunday, is a time of repentance and reflection for Christians and is marked by prayer and fasting. The ashes, which are made from palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday observance, remind believers of their mortality.
"This is another way to engage people,'' said Steed, who is a layperson but was dressed in traditional black-and-white religious robes. "We thought we'd take church to the people."
Once the ashes are blessed — Steed was using a jar of ashes consecrated by the Rev. Michel Belt, pastor of St. James — any lay person can dispense them, he said.
"No special powers are needed to give out ashes,'' he said.
There are many people, he said, who want to participate in church but are busy.
"And some folks aren't ready to go back to church yet, but they're thinking about it,'' he said.
In addition to dispensing ashes, Steed and Barnum also handed out brochures explaining Ash Wednesday.
Although it was the first time St. James offered ashes outside of its Federal Street church, Ashes to Go is a national movement that began in 2007 in St. Louis, Mo., according to ashestogo.org. It was a way to encourage churches to bring the ritual to the public rather than wait for people to come into the church.
Across the country Wednesday, clergy and lay people were on street corners and outside coffee shops. In Madison, Wis., drive-thru ashes were offered at busy intersections. Drivers did not have to get out of their cars.
"We want people to think about Lent,'' said Steed as he waited on the sidewalk. "To think about things they might be sorry for."