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Bishops encourage churches to offer "drive-thru" Ash Wednesday

A brick church
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Before you roll your eyes and grumble about what society is coming to, just hear these churches out for a second. 

"It was painful to hear that so many people weren't getting ashes until the evening," says Reverend June Marshall-Smith of Novi United Methodist.

She says growing up, she always got ashes in the morning, "to remind me all day how my faith is guiding me during the Lenten season."  

"[But now] churches had gone to only evening services and no longer morning services. So I was providing a morning service, but people who were not members of my congregation were not coming to that.

"I had one woman stop by about five or six years ago who saw we had a morning service, and she was crying and said, 'I went to five churches and none of them had a morning service!'" says Smith. 

"So it was just dwelling on my heart. How can we change this? How can we do something to serve people so that they at least have that daily, that constant reminder all day long about their [faith] journey?"

For Marshall-Smith, that meant starting "drive-thru" Ash Wednesday services. Starting at 7 a.m., she and a couple volunteers stand outside in the parking lot and offer ashes to anyone who drives up. They put space heaters in the church lobby so they can take turns ducking inside to get warm. 

It's become such an effective way of reaching out, that now the Methodist and the Episcopal dioceses of Michigan are actually encouraging clergy to offer these services. 

While it's hard to get exact numbers on how many churches are doing it, staff at both dioceses estimate it's in the dozens.

"The first year we had it, we had a couple with a man who is wheel-chair bound and he can't get in to worship services often," says Marshall-Smith.  

"And they were on their way to a doctor's appointment and they came for the drive-thru ashes. And we had a woman who was on her way to her dad's emergency surgery. And she said 'If you had a line, I couldn't stay. But you didn't have a line, so now I can go make my dad's surgery.'

"I've had some very beautiful experiences with people and how touched they are to be able to have that reminder all day long."  

In fact, it's becoming so popular that Reverend Marshall-Smith says they're seeing fewer people drive up this morning.  

"We probably only served ashes to about 30 people [this morning.] In the past, it's been as high as 50. But I think a lot of it has to do with, we have so many other churches that are offering drive-thru ashes or 'ashes to go.'" 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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