A few years ago I went to pick up my kids at our church preschool. I had trouble finding a parking spot and realized with a sinking sense of dread that it was Ash Wednesday. I had forgotten, and there was no way I could come back for an evening service that started at my kids’ bedtime. I could not remember a single time I had missed an Ash Wednesday service. But then…
… then I had small children and my world became more about the rhythms of meals and bedtimes rather than the liturgical calendar.
… then there was a pandemic.
… then I moved across the country.
Ashes to Go Is Just What Some Folks Need
I remembered that the church had been doing this thing called Ashes to Go for a few years. I asked at the front desk but no one really knew much about it. I threw the kids in the stroller and decided to go looking.
I worried the ashes wouldn’t feel “real” without the service.
I felt awkward being on a street corner in the middle of downtown on a busy day.
I worried my priest might be disappointed in me for not attending a “proper” service.
It turns out that Ashes to Go was just what I needed.
When my kids got older, I wanted them involved in the Ash Wednesday rituals. But they were in school during the noon service, and an evening service was still too late for our weeknights. So we kept getting Ashes to Go. Over the years, this ritual of parking at the church and then walking down to a street corner became profoundly important, not only to me, but also to my children.
I think for the kids there was a value in this liturgy being different from what they do every Sunday. Being out in the city, seeing their beloved Father Chuck in the real world, saying the prayers one-on-one: it’s a bite-sized liturgy that’s just right for them at this time.
That’s the thing about Ashes to Go: the big liturgy we do in church is deeply meaningful, but it doesn’t always work for everyone. Ashes to Go opens the doors a little wider to invite even more people into the life of the church. Sometimes it is a UPS driver at a stoplight or a grocery worker on their break; sometimes it’s a young professional who hadn’t even realized it was Ash Wednesday; sometimes it is an unhoused neighbor who isn’t comfortable inside the church; sometimes it’s a faithful friend in a busy time.
Last year we did our ashes on the front porch, using the tiny packet that a priest friend mailed us. I cried when I opened the package. Especially in this time of pandemic isolation (and after a cross country move), it meant so much to know we weren’t forgotten and to have a way to participate in the life of the church.
Reaching More People With Ashes to Go
Here are 3 ways to use the Ashes to Go model to reach even more people:
- Publicize well!
Tell your church members about Ashes to Go! Make sure the information is easily available. I don’t think many people will change their plans to do Ashes to Go instead of the big service. But there are some who will do Ashes to Go instead of skipping it altogether.
2. Offer ashes to others in the building.
Look at who is in your church building on Ash Wednesday. Many churches have groups meeting in the building- sometimes they are outside groups, sometimes they are choirs and bible studies and meetings. Is there a way you can make sure those groups have the opportunity to receive ashes? Maybe have a priest or lay minister at the door during preschool pickup. Have someone pop by choir rehearsal to offer ashes.
3. Utilize the mail.
Lastly, if you can’t send lay ministers to visit your homebound parishioners, try mailing a prayer card and a small envelope of ashes. It isn’t the same as praying face to face, but it is still worthwhile to let people know they are missed and can be involved in the life of the church even in different circumstances.
Photo: the author’s children with The Rev. Dr. Chuck Treadwell in Austin, TX.
Thank you so much for this! I have found it very difficult to convince the leaders of our “family friendly” church that evening services exclude families with young children. I’d love to see my church find a way to offer ashes to go.
Sarah Bentley Allred (she/her/hers)
So very glad this is helpful!! Yes, I agree that an evening service is not family friendly!
Our church holds Ashes to Go every year and it is truly a helpful and beneficial service and blessing. As a parent of younger children, it can be challenging and quite often, nearly impossible to attend an evening Ash Wednesday service. We’ve attended our church since 2018 and Ashes to Go has become a tradition for us and allows our family to participate in this important day together.
And, as the author pointed out, it offers a great service for busy folks and passersby to connect with their faith!
Vicki Joy McClure
Thank you, Erin, for a lovely article and for teaching your children (my grandchildren) the traditions that will be in their hearts and memories for all their lives. ❤️