Ash Wednesday is a personal, close-contact ritual within the Christian church where members receive a blessed mark of ashes on their foreheads. From drive-thru setups, to mailing ashes to church members, Southern California churches found creative ways to safely keep the old tradition going.

Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church has multiple locations throughout Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino County, but it is their Upland location that adopted a modified “Ash and Dash” system for Ash Wednesday. For this system, the church opted to create an “ash kit” that was placed in either a passenger seat or trunk, allowing churchgoers to safely apply the blessed ashes themselves.

“Instead of imposing the ashes on people’s foreheads, we’re going to safely deliver the kits into their trunks or their passenger side window,” Saint Mark’s Rev. Keith Yamamoto said.

The church has had a drive-thru Ash Wednesday setup for four years now, which Rev. Yamamoto said the program helped him receive ashes in 2020, after an being involved in an accident that wouldn’t have allowed him to participate otherwise.

“This is our fourth year doing the drive-thru experience because what we found was that people were busy, they couldn’t take the time off work… to get to the church or the Ash Wednesday service,” Yamamoto said. “We started doing the drive-thru experience… so people on their morning commute could just come through our parking lot, receive the ashes and begin the rest of their day.”

Those who chose to attend the Ash and Dash this year saw ministers in masks, instructing cars where to go an allowing them to receive the ashes without needing to lower their windows or contact anyone outside. The church also advised on Lent instruction, as well as carried out a streamed church service at 12 p.m., with another streaming at 7 p.m.

St. James Episcopal Church in Los Angeles sent its congregants ashes by mail since they were not having in-person services for Ash Wednesday. The church will also be streaming a church service at 7 p.m. and asked that church members check their mailboxes as they put together their own ash kits and sent them out last week.

“Many of our episcopal churches in the region have risen up with creative solutions such as mailing ashes that have been blessed… so they will have the ashes at home for the digital services that will take place on Ash Wednesday,” Bob Williams, Canon For Common Life of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, said.

All Saints Church in Pasadena made their ash Wednesday a little more interactive this year with a “Burn It” campaign. The church asked its congregants to share messages and phrases of “negative or constraining experiences,” put those words to paper and drive by the church, where masked ushers would receive them.

The church took those words as they came in throughout the day, Tuesday, and used the ashes for their Ash Wednesday service.

St. Charles Borromeo chose to have a drive-in mass for Ash Wednesday, as parishioners parked in designated spots, and were asked to wear masks at all times, including while inside their cars. While there, as would be the case in a drive-in theater, guests tuned their car radios to listen to the live church service.

With PPE on, servers from the church went around to cars, distributing the ashes.

It’s a wonderful encounter for people who might not be comfortable with coming into a church,” Williams said. “…the churches are rising up and finding creative solutions to make the observance meaningful.”

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