Early this morning in the parking lot of Islands Shopping Center, near Ace Hardware, the Rev. Bruce Fehr of St. Francis of the Islands Episcopal Church in Savannah, Georgia, placed ashes on the foreheads of 52 people who didn't even have to leave their vehicles.
"It was cold, by our standards," said Fehr, who stood in the 37-degree weather with his wife and a parishioner who leases office space nearby.
The church called this morning's service, "Ashes to Go," and it is part of a trend in which churches hope to meet the needs of the faithful with what might be called an "ash and dash."
"The feedback we've had was incredible," Fehr said.
The service was the first of its kind for his church, which has about 160 people in its congregation, though all 52 who received ashes this morning were not parishioners. There was to be another "Ashes to Go" service at 4:30 p.m. today and traditional services at noon and 7 p.m. inside the church.
The Rev. Linda Northcraft and the Rev. Chris Berg said they were surprised by the attendance at the church's first-ever drive-thru service.
"We were both out on the parking lot and we had teenagers who had signs at the corners," said Northcraft, who braved a temperature of 9 degrees.
"We were just dressed warmly," she said.
A number of Episcopal churches in the U.S. are hosting drive-thru services or similar events today. With the encouragement of her bishop, Northcraft said about 20 churches in her diocese around Detroit were hosting mobile services. Her church's 250-member congregation could also attend a traditional service indoors at noon and 7:30 p.m.
Northcraft said she would "absolutely" hold an unconventional service like today's again.
"If you have 40 people coming, that’s wonderful," she said, adding that with the exception of three parishioners, "They were people we had never seen before."
Most had heard about the service through the radio, including three elderly women who said it would have been difficult to leave their car.
"It made it possible to get ashes because they were handicapped, which I thought was just wonderful," Northcraft said.
Mount Healthy United Methodist Church in Mount Healthy, Ohio, has offered Ash Wednesday drive-thru service for three years now. The Ash Wednesday service will take place from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. today.
“We try to hit rush hour where there are a lot of cars out,” the Rev. Jonathan Kollmann said. Last year, 40 cars participated. The congregation of about 110 people also offers a monthly “park and pray” service.
“People are so busy but we want them to come through and begin a Holy Lent journey,” Kollmann said. “We are always trying to do things that are innovative and try to tell them God loves them. We tell people we should meet the needs of our community.”