The Rev. Murray Richmond of First Presbyterian Church places ashes Wednesday on the forehead of Rachael Hall of Medford outside Rogue Community College, as Mike Hubbard, pastor at Community Presbyterian Church in Tulelake, Calif., looks on. - Bob Pennell

Takin' it to the streets

Recognizing that most people don't know what Ash Wednesday is — let alone have time to come to church for it — three pastors took their ashes to the streets of Medford Wednesday, painting the cross on the foreheads of willing passersby.

"Wow," exclaimed Rachael Hall, 36, of Medford, after having ashes smudged on her forehead by the Rev. Murray Richmond of Medford's First Presbyterian Church. "That was really moving. I feel more included in the community. I honestly never thought about Ash Wednesday. I'm going to think about it every day. We might slow down and think more about others. I feel really good."

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a period of fasting and giving up something to mark Christ's grueling 40 days in the wilderness, says Richmond, whose message was that life is short and all must die, so now's the time to think about being a better person.

The ritual with the ashes is not part of most churches — and most parishioners don't have time for it, says Richmond, so it doesn't pay to sit in church waiting for people to come in for it.

Thus, the "ashes on the go" rite is taking hold outside church walls. Most people declined to have ashes "imposed" on their foreheads Wednesday, but many, including non-Christians, happily tried it out.

Cezanne Spencer, getting in her car on 10th Street, explained she was Cherokee, not Christian, but she accepted the ashes.

"I figure every bit helps," Spencer said.

Coming from his OnTrack group, Solomon Swegar of Medford took part in the ritual.

"I figured, why not?" Swegar said. "I'm only slightly religious, but it felt like a new kind of liberation. I like to try new things, and I like rituals. It was a reminder that we came from ashes and that's where we will end up."

"It's a rite of passage, an opportunity for us to begin to enter into a relationship with God through humility and reflectiveness," said Father Joel Maiorano of Rogue Valley Manor, who wore a sackcloth stole around his neck and shoulders as he painted ashes on people by a hot dog stand across from Rogue Community College.

The rite of sackcloth and ashes mourns our mortality, says Rev. Mike Hubbard of Community Presbyterian Church in Tulelake, Calif., who assisted with the ritual Wednesday.

"It's the one time of year we look to our own death and resurrection — after the excesses of Fat Tuesday — and comprehend we are going from dust to dust," Hubbard said.

"It's about penance and death, facing our own mortality," Richmond added. "It's a time to look at life and see where you want to go in it. Life is short, so let's make the best of it by looking for a better life here and in the eternal."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at

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