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Ashes to Go meets people where they are: in their cars

Ashes to Go meets people where they are: in their cars

CLEARWATER -- People who headed to Skycrest UMC to observe Ash Wednesday this year didn’t even need to leave their cars.

As they arrived at the Clearwater church during morning rush hour, Rev. Emily Oliver was there to greet them as they pulled up to the curb or walked over from a church parking lot.

Rev. Emily Oliver administers ashes to Judi McKeel sitting in a car
Rev. Emily Oliver administers the ashes of Lent to Judi McKeel, one of about 40 commuters who pulled into Skycrest UMC, Clearwater, to receive the traditional symbol. Photos by B.C. Manion.

About 40 people showed up – in sedans and SUVs, pickup trucks and compact cars – during the  morning “Ashes to Go” event, which began around 7:30 and ended at 9:15.

Oliver smiled broadly, calling some arrivals by name as they approached to receive ashes and greeted others she didn’t know with warm enthusiasm. It took just a moment for the church pastor to trace a sign of the cross in ashes on people’s foreheads.

As Oliver made the sign of the cross on Paul Hudson’s forehead, she said: “We begin the Lenten season with this symbol. We remember that we are dust and to dust we will return, but that our hope is in Jesus.”

The idea of offering “Ashes to Go” at Skycrest grew out of a conversation between Oliver and church member Barb McQuain.

The women were discussing how the church could become more active in the community. The pastor also wanted to find a way to offer people a chance to receive ashes in the morning, so they could display the sign of their faith all day.

Oliver told McQuain she wished she could have a morning service, but she knew that people had to get their children to school and themselves to work.

McQuain asked her, “Couldn’t there just be a drive-through?”

The women laughed, but then they thought: “Why not?”

Bob Hudson receives Lenten ashes from Rev. Emily Oliver
Above, Rev. Emily Oliver places the sign of the cross on the forehead of Paul Hudson during Ashes to Go at Skycrest UMC. Hudson said he sees it as the beginning of a "season of reflection." Below, Oliver explains the meaning behind the symbol as she prepares to place the sign of the cross on a motorist's forehead.
Rev. Emily Oliver approaches motorist who pulled in for Ashes to Go

Barbara Parton, a church volunteer, said she’s glad people had a chance to receive the ashes outdoors. Some people are reluctant to step inside a church, she said.

Church member Jerelyn Miller was pleased to receive her ashes early in the day. “I firmly believe in trying to let the light of Christ shine for everybody to see,” she said.

The church put up signs and passed out about 200 postcards in the community inviting people to come to “Ashes to Go” and upcoming events.

“Our goal is that people understand that we’re the type of church that wants to be present in the community,” Oliver said.

For those wishing a more traditional option, Skycrest had a 7 p.m. service in the church sanctuary.

The idea of taking the distribution of ashes to the streets is not a new one.

A website called  lists Ash Wednesday outreach efforts all over the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Most of the churches on the site are Episcopal, but there are other denominations as well.

These churches distribute ashes to people on college campuses, at train station stops, at coffee shops, park-and-rides, bus stops, street corners, shopping centers, parks and other places.

A comment accompanying the website posting by Wheatland UMC in Dallas, Texas, declares: “If going to church isn’t your thing, but you would still like to participate in the ancient tradition of reflecting on your mortality as a preparation for Easter, then meet us on Campus Corner. We’ll be there rain/snow/thunderstorm or shine!”

Christ the King Lutheran Church in Pinecrest is another Florida church that offered people a convenient and meaningful way to mark the beginning of Lent.

The church invited people to pull through its circular drive to receive ashes and a moment of prayer as they headed off to school or work. The church called its effort “Ashes Along the Way.”

Rev. Kathryn Carroll, the pastor, said the effort was intended to engage people who might not otherwise participate in a church service. She said she distributed ashes and offered prayers in either English or Spanish and received requests for both. The church also offered traditional Ash Wednesday services at noon and 7:30 p.m.

While it didn’t offer a drive-through Ash Wednesday service, there’s a church in Daytona Beach that has long recognized the attraction of worshipers for staying in their cars. For 60 years, the Daytona Beach Drive In Christian Church has offered Sunday services on the grounds of a former drive-in movie theater, said Rev. Bob Kemp-Baird.

Worshipers park on the grassy lot and have the option of staying in their cars or making themselves comfortable on the church grounds.The setting is unconventional, but the service is traditional, Kemp-Baird said. The congregation is a mix of local residents, winter residents, tourists and visitors.

The church had no plans to distribute ashes for Ash Wednesday because its congregation comes from so many faith traditions, Kemp-Baird said. But it will mark the season with a special Lenten Study Series.

-- B.C. Manion is a freelance writer based in Tampa.