NORTHAMPTON — Smith College engineering student Rebecca Uttormark walked from campus to First Churches on Main Street on Ash Wednesday to pledge to help the environment.

Uttormark was the first person to join a “carbon fast” the church is sponsoring to mark the start of Lent, a 40-day period of reflection and self-sacrifice for Christians leading up to Easter.

Instead of giving up sweets, coffee or other popular Lenten sacrifices, participants who “Take the Smudge” agree to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels.

“I feel like it’s appropriate to take a stand,” said Uttormark, after the Rev. Todd Weir, pastor of First Churches, had marked her forehead with the traditional cross of ashes Wednesday morning.

“I brought recycling to my own home and I feel very strongly about it,” she said. “And I struggle with people my own age who aren’t as aware of these things.”

Uttormark, who is a member of the downtown congregation, was one of the few who chose to receive ashes outside the church at a special Ash Wednesday outpost Weir had set up during the morning rush hour and at lunchtime.

Still, dozens of others took fliers describing the carbon fast, part of a larger campaign the United Church of Christ launched three years ago to focus attention on global warming and the need for more renewable energy.

Weir noted that the Rev. Jim Antal, president of the Massachusetts United Church of Christ Conference, was in Washington on Wednesday engaging in civil disobedience and preparing for a national climate rally scheduled for Sunday. Several buses filled with local people are heading to the nation’s capital for the rally.

“Care of the Earth and global warming are now central, core issues for the church,” said Weir, who has led the Northampton congregation for the past six months.

While other UCC churches are participating in the carbon fast — along with churches from other Protestant denominations — the idea of doing outreach to non-church members on Ash Wednesday was Weir’s.

The symbolism of the religious observance was hard to resist, he explained, as he mixed ashes from burnt palm fronds with a bit of olive oil in a pottery bowl.

“Ashes are carbon,” Weir said. “They remind us that we’re a part of the Earth and if there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s the need to preserve our planet.”

Peter Collins, a Hampshire College student who was passing by First Churches at lunchtime, appreciated the connection.

“My grandmother always gave up chocolate chips,” he said, with a smile. “This is the most creative use of Lent I’ve ever seen.”

Blake Thiede, a Holyoke resident who is looking for work as a restaurant manager, spent a few minutes describing some green buildings he’d read about to Weir.

“Normally, I don’t stop to talk on the street like this, but I’m interested,” Thiede said.

A few people turned away or ignored Weir’s greeting: “We’re focused on the environment for Lent.”

But most responded approvingly to the idea of the carbon fast.

“We all try to do that,” said an older man in a leather jacket.

“Cool!” said a young woman carrying a flowered backpack.

First Churches will post daily suggestions during Lent on its Facebook page (First Churches of Northampton) for ways people can shrink their carbon footprint. For example, keeping car tires properly inflated increases fuel efficiency by 3.3 percent and regular tuneups by another 4 percent.

Weir said church members will also be encouraged to post ideas of their own at

Northampton resident Sandy Hoover, a First Churches deacon who was helping pass out fliers Wednesday, said such sharing is the best way to tackle the seemingly intractable problem of global warming.

“People think we’ve got to do something big, but really, we can do small things,” Hoover said.

City Parking Enforcement Officer Sandy Blackmon of Florence agreed.

“This is a wonderful focus, a much-needed focus,” she said as she walked by First Churches. “We can’t forget the environment.”

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