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Meeting people where they are on Ash Wednesday


Pastor of Kentucky congregation says annual ‘Drive Through Ashes’ service engages with the community ‘kinda like Jesus’

by Emily Enders Odom, Mission Communications | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Eirk Witsoe via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — If Union Presbyterian Church were to adopt a motto for the way it has chosen to observe Ash Wednesday since 2017, it might not be unlike that of the U.S. Postal Service.

Neither snow nor rain — nor, apparently, other natural disasters — have kept this congregation from holding its annual “Drive Through Ashes” service.

“We started the practice the year after I attended a clergywomen’s retreat, where I heard stories about other congregations getting out into the community with this service and meeting people where they are,” said Union’s pastor, the Rev. Lisa Stenner. “You know, kinda like Jesus. Our session jumped at the chance to try just such an experiment.”

But because the holy day that marks the beginning of Lent is always 46 days before Easter — the dating of which is determined by the Lunar Calendar — Ash Wednesday can occur as early as Feb. 4 and as late as March 10.

And, as a result, it often falls in the midst of unpredictable winter weather conditions.

Rev. Lisa Stenner

“I don’t remember if we had actually welcomed any folks that first morning before the weather took a wicked turn,” said Stenner. “First, there was a deluge of rain, then hail, then the warning sirens sounded. All our folks scrambled for cover. Our card table of treats blew away to never be seen again. We all made a break for the safety of the church building, where we read books and sang songs until the weather passed. It was a dramatic first time!”

Yet the day’s drama was nonetheless filled with what Lisa Allgood, executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Cincinnati, calls “holy moments.”

“Union has some of the most innovative ways to do ministry in and amongst the congregation, as well as across the community, in a way that brings what I call ‘holy moments’ to life,” Allgood said.

Stenner described one such “holy moment” that occurred not long after the somewhat “bedraggled” Drive Through Ashes crew had cleaned the coffee pots and headed home — soaking wet — that very first year.

As Stenner herself was about to leave for home to take a nap and a shower, she saw a car pull in near the church office. When she approached the driver to ask whether she could be of assistance, the woman asked Stenner whether the church was still offering drive-through ashes.

Answering, “of course,” Stenner went back into the church to get the ashes before returning to the car and its two passengers. The driver’s mother was seated beside her.

“When the driver lowered the window,” Stenner recalled, “the mom told me she was in her 90s and hadn’t been able to go to church in quite some time and that Ash Wednesday had always been meaningful to her. After we chatted for a bit, I imposed ashes in the sign of the cross on her forehead and prayed for her. She wept and was so thankful. My heart began to leak out of my eyes. I moved to the driver’s window and asked the woman’s daughter if she wished to receive ashes. Her eyes were full, not yet overflowing. She responded that she was done with church years ago and didn’t want ashes, but she would appreciate a prayer. I put my hand on her forearm and prayed for her and her family. When I finished, her heart was flowing out of her eyes. She said, ‘You don’t know what this means,’ and drove away. That. That. That.”

Stenner said that this experience affirmed the congregation’s decision “to do something different — to meet people where they are and to trust the Spirit’s leading in ways that may never put people in the pews or dollars in the offering plate.”

“Over the past seven years,” she continued, “we have met the Spirit in the parking lot. We ask for nothing. Many of us are not ‘morning people,’ yet the experience is so precious and holy.”

That’s certainly true for Allgood, who says that Union’s Ash Wednesday service is among her favorite worship experiences.

Lisa Allgood

“The annual Drive Through Ashes is a unique way for the church to meet the broader community in the busy-ness of their day, whether carpooling to school, on their way to or from work, or running errands,” said Allgood. “It enables everyone to experience the beginning of Lent without scheduling yet another long time commitment in their day. Don’t get me wrong: I love the liturgy and worship experience around Lent. But sometimes ‘holy moments’ are enough. Offering those in the way that the Union church does allows them to reach out to their neighbors not only with the ashes, but also with a hot cup of coffee and the love of the community.”

And for every church member who helps with Drive Through Ashes, Stenner says that “God shows up every time” — whether it’s in a tornado, a snowstorm, a vicious cold day or on mornings that promise of spring.

“And we receive more grace than we could ever offer,” she said. “These disciples and I get up at a ridiculous time of the day, make coffee, prepare goodie bags and offer the hospitality of Christ to folks we may never see again. And we’ve received the holy gift of stories of folks whose busy lives and/or family duties make it impossible for them to attend the traditional evening service, of folks that are seeking hope, of folks that have been wounded by religious institutions, of folks that doubt but hope that the gospel is real. Through this simple offering, we’ve witnessed a glimpse of the kingdom of God present in the midst of a broken and hurting world.”

Click here to access the PC(USA)’s landing page listing a wide variety of devotional and worship resources for Lent from across the agencies of the PC(USA). The resources, many of which are free and downloadable, are suitable for use by individuals, congregations and mid councils.

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