(Crystal A. Proxmire, Feb. 14, 2015)
Ash Wednesday is a day for people of some Christian denominations to have a cross of ashes placed on their forehead as a solemn reminder that human bodies return to the earth after passing on. While this generally comes along with a ceremony, a growing number of churches are making it easy on parishioners by offering drive-through ashes.
The ashes come from palm leaves used during the Palm Sunday Service, and generally a priest or minister uses them to make a cross while saying a message like “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Often there is a ceremony as Ash Wednesday kicks of Lent, a 40 day time-frame of fasting, contemplation and repentance leading up to Easter Sunday.
“I likely would have been the person who wrinkled their nose if I had heard of a church doing drive-thru ashes. I had long bemoaned the fact that folks could not get ashes on Ash Wednesday for the entire day, but rather for an hour before bedtime. Our church once had a Roman Catholic woman turn around and come back to our early morning worship to receive ashes. My heart was telling me that if one other person was passionate about Lent as she, then I was being called to find a way to reach out,” said Rev. June M. Marshall Smith of Novi United Methodist Church. She started the tradition at her church two years ago after lamenting that although Ash Wednesday was a day-long observance, many could not get their ashes until the evening, or not at all if they had to work. Many of the interactions moved her.
“I spent time with each car, praying if they had time, placing ashes upon their head with a blessing. Each person received at least 2 small notes with an admonishment. I reminded each of them that ‘sometime today, someone will comment to you that you have dirt on your forehead.” I asked them to take that purple piece of paper and share with that person how important the ashes were to them or to share their faith.
“The first surprise was a woman who drove over an hour to arrive to our church! I was stunned when she shared this! She said that she had checked and none of the churches near her home had Ash Wednesday worship until evening. She explained that she likely would not end work until well after 8 p.m. and could not realistically attend a service. She was greatly moved.
“One of my last worshipers was a husband and wife team. The wife explained that the husband used a wheelchair and they rarely can attend worship because it takes over 3 hours to get him ready for the day. He was on his way to the doctor’s office and they were moved to have ashes for the day.
“One woman could speak little English but it was important that her family be there with her. Others thought it novel but did not leave feeling that way. Almost every car had at least on Roman Catholic believer, mourning the passing of the early morning worship services.”
All Saints Episcopal Church in Pontiac is doing “Ashes on the Go!” with a drive through in the parking lot of the church off Williams Street. “We see this as a form of Evangelizing Gods love and to provide an option for those Christians in the Pontiac Community to receive that sacrament even during their busy schedules,” said Glenn Morrison a volunteer at the church. “We will be doing this from 7:30am to 8:30am, in addition to our other Ash Wednesday services that same day! There have been other parishes that have done this in the past and will be doing it again this year in the diocese. We are providing this as a central Location during the morning drive with hopes that people will take part!”
At noon they will have Liturgy for Ash Wednesday and Holy Eucharist and at 7:30pm they will have worship with music. All Saints’ website is http://www.allsaintspontiac.org/.
St. David’s Episcopal Church at 16200 W. Twelve Mile Road in Southfield is also doing drive-through ashes. A robed minister will be standing outside from 11am to 1pm and again from 4-6pm to administer ashes. Motorists stay in their car and do not stay long so that the line can keep moving. “Lost in the busyness of daily life can be the pursuit of our spiritual lives,” said the Rev. Chris Yaw, rector of St. David’s Parish. “’Drive-Thru Ashes’ is aimed at helping those whose schedules preclude them from coming to Ash Wednesday services to participate in the central act of this day—receiving ashes and prayer. Ash Wednesday is intended to provide a time of reflection and repentance for what we have done and what we have failed to do. We hope that Drive-Thru Ashes can make the message and meaning of this day more accessible.”
St. David’s also is holding two indoor services on Ash Wednesday, one at noon and another at 7 p.m. Those services will include both imposition of ashes and the Holy Eucharist. Their Web address is: www.stdavidssf.org
~Be prepared for the elements. There was a great deal of time outside, with each car. I was dressed for the weather, with layering, including a robe and vestments but my hands and feet were seriously at risk since I was outside, on the pavement.
~Work in teams. Maybe other clergy would partner with a church with easy access and great visibility? Clergy or laity should rotate.
~Consider a rug or long remnant of carpet if you are on pavement. We have heaters in the entryway and rubber mats that heat like a heating pad to stand upon as we take shifts.
~Consider traffic flow. Is there room for cars to navigate to get in line? Can you have more than one line?
~Living in Michigan, it is difficult to place signage into the ground. Our local sign company created sign like a triangular prism. I weighted the base of the prism with brick pavers to secure them from the wind. I had to move them after viewing them from a car on the roadway.
~Hydration: I thought about warm liquids but should have had water available. The line was truly steady all morning so, getting a break to hydrate or use the restroom was imperative.
~Be prepared for unsavory voice mail messages, e-mails and notes. Many folks wrongfully assume drive thru is in place of worship. Only the wheelchair van occupants said they would not attend worship that evening.
~Have something for guests to reflect upon during the day. Give them an opportunity to hear God’s word.
~Do not expect people to flock to your church every week because you did this. When we provide a meal and fellowship for those in need, it is not to recruit, proselytize, nor to build our congregations. We are there to be the hands of Christ, serving where we are called.
Though there has been debate, Rev. Smith believes wholeheartedly in the work of making Ash Wednesday accessible. “Thank you to those who take the church outside the walls of the church building,” she said. “While it started great debate within our local community, I would not be dissuaded after hearing the stories of those who attended.” For more on Novi United Methodist Church, go to http://www.umcnovi.com/.
Here is a list of others offering drive-through ashes:
Advent Episcopal/Sylvan Lake & Ascension Lutheran, West Bloomfield: Ashes available Wednesday, Feb. 18 from 7:30 to 9 a.m.
All Saints, East Lansing: In the parking lot outside the church following the 7:30 a.m. Eucharist.
St. David’s, Southfield: Drive-thru ashes will be available from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 to 6 p.m.
St. John’s, Howell: Ashes available 3:30 to 5 p.m., southwest corner of Liberty and Prospect Streets in Howell, adjacent to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital.
St. Michael’s & All Angels, Lincoln Park: Noon to 6 p.m.; also, 7 p.m. Eucharist with ashes.
St. Patrick’s, Madison Heights: Ashes to Go, 7 to 9 a.m.
In Southwest Detroit, clergy or lay persons interested in assisting may contact the Rev. Juan Perez at email@example.com.
Trinity, Belleville: 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. (directly before regular 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. Ash Wednesday services).
St. Michael’s Episcopal, Church Grosse Pointe Woods: 5:30 and 6 pm
NOTE: If your church will be offering drive-through ashes please send information to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll update this story with new information as it becomes available.