Ashes to Go attracts people for mobile blessings

Lexie Vigna from West Leechburg has a busy schedule as a student. At home this week during spring break, she found time to observe Ash Wednesday outside the CoCo Coffeehouse in Leechburg, receiving “Ashes to Go”.

“It’s very convenient to do this while I’m studying here at the cafe. I think it’s good because it allows people who are too busy to go to church to meet a pastor on the street,” said Vigna, a sophomore at Waynesburg University.

Christian worshipers mark Ash Wednesday by receiving ashes on their foreheads. The ancient tradition, marking the start of Lent leading up to Easter, uses the ashes to represent a line from the Old Testament Book of Genesis: “Dust you are, and to dust you will return”.

Revs. Gary and Lisa Lyon, co-pastors of Cross Roads Community Presbyterian Church in Leechburg, have been offering Ashes to Go since 2016.

They set up at two locations on Ash Wednesday, outside their church on Main Street and outside CoCo Coffeehouse on Market Street.

The owner of CoCo, Nikki Saxion, offers her business as an annual place to raise awareness among Lyonnais.

“Supporting the community is important to me and that also includes the spiritual component,” Saxion said.

This year marks the last year the couple will administer the take-home ashes as full-time ministers, as they both retire this spring.

“We will miss it. It’s one of the times when we can connect with people outside of the church in a more spiritual way,” said Gary Lyon. “We really like doing that.”

They said Cross Roads would continue to offer Ashes to Go in Leechburg after their retirement.

More than 25 people lined up outside the CoCo Coffeehouse on Ash Wednesday to receive the ashes and share a personalized prayer with the people of Lyon.

“We encouraged them on their Lenten journey and some had specific prayer requests, including one for a woman named Rosa who is currently hiding in her basement in Ukraine,” Gary Lyon said.

Last year, married ministers had to offer a contactless Ashes to Go experience, providing attendees with a sticker instead of the usual smudged ashes applied with a thumb on the forehead.

The Episcopal Church clergy began offering Ashes to Go in 2007.

Marge VanTassel, 86, of Gilpin, said she was motivated to take part in Ashes to Go, in part because of the current situation around the world.

VanTassel, a member of the Apollo Free Methodist Church, said she had not received an ash in over a decade.

“This year is a traumatic year for all of us due to events unfolding in the world. If you have true faith, it can lead to something important for Christians, so the ashes can help strengthen my prayers I’m not ashamed to say I’m a Christian and to carry the ashes,” VanTassel said.

In Brackenridge, Episcopal Saint Barnabas Church drew steady crowds outside the red-brick sanctuary for its Ashes to Go program.

Church member Karen Davidek Virag walked her dog, Finley, to the patio where blessings were distributed.

“It’s a great way to reach people,” she says. “We generally have excellent turnout.”

The mild temperatures helped the cause, with several nearby neighbors and businessmen seeking mobile blessings from the Reverend Frank Yesko.

A pastor since 2013, Yesko said the initiative aligns perfectly with Lent’s mission to “renew our faith.”

“It’s a great way to reach out to people,” Yesko said.

The church, which is at Morgan Street and Freeport Road, began offering Ashes to Go about four years ago.

The ecumenical program usually attracts around 65 people or more.

Member Larry Dupain said the church strives to “extend Christ into the community” through various programs and Ashes to Go is a perfect example of the work of parishioners.

Yesko will be out again from 4-5 p.m. to distribute more ashes to the crowd after work.

Donna Ladie was happy to have received hers at lunchtime. Ladie, a Catholic, is not a member of the church but said she visits St Barnabas year after year to get her Ash Wednesday invocation.

“I just got in and I don’t even have to get out of the car,” she said. “It’s good. I collect my ashes and I can continue.

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