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Mar 05, 2014 | Luke Blount

Clergy in Spring Brave Rain, Cold to Deliver Drive-Thru Ashes

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Across the Diocese of Texas and the entire Episcopal Church, clergy are taking to the streets to offer Ashes to pedestrians and motorists as part of "Ashes To Go," an Ash Wednesday practice that began in Chicago a few years ago. At Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Spring, the Rev. Jimmy Abbott, rector, and the Rev. Bob Lowry, deacon, braved rain and temperatures in the mid-30s to offer drive-thru ashes from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.


"We did a traffic study that showed 24,000 cars pass by the church on an average weekday," Abbott said. "So we thought this would be a really neat way to open ourselves up to the community and let them know we are here. We ask all the time, 'Why aren't people coming to church.' In a way, we need to be going to them."


This is the second year Abbott has offered ashes in the church's parking lot off of busy Spring-Cypress Road. Last year was a bright, sunny day, but this year wasn't so pleasant. Accompanied by volunteers from the church, Abbott and Lowry took shifts outside. One would stand under a tent outside until a car arrived while the other de-frosted inside the church.


"When they roll down their windows, there's a blast of hot air," Abbott said, jokingly. "It's like the Gobi Desert in there!"


At 6 a.m. Abbott and Lowry served about 40 parishioners who attended an early service inside the church. They also offer a noon service and a 7 p.m. service inside. By 9 a.m., more than 20 people had received ashes from the drive-thru. Each person that drove up to their tent was offered coffee and donuts and given a brochure about the church, which reads, "All are welcome: saints, sinners and skeptics."


Last year, Holy Comforter's efforts made the local Spring paper before the event and appeared in the Houston Chronicle after Ash Wednesday. This year, they put signs and banners outside the church and used social media to spread the word, including placing an ad or "promoted tweet" through Twitter. Later in the day, a local TV station came by to film the weather-beaten clergy. 


The community of Spring is largely a commuter town, with many people driving 30 minutes into Houston every day. "The context of Spring, Texas is that you are in your car all the time," Abbott said. "Our point of evangelism should be their car."


Parishioner Victoria Valmain volunteered to help with the drive-thru, enduring the weather, although she briefly left to buy thicker socks. "We have drive-thru food, drive-thru flu shots, drive-thru everything, so why not this?" she said. "I don't think the concept can be taken to drive-thru church, but you have to meet people where they are."


As this was his first year to offer drive-thru ashes, Lowry was surprised by the openness of drive-thru participants. Several people had specific prayer requests and "some people were reduced to tears," he said.


One couple drove up to Abbott and as soon as they rolled down the window, the elderly gentleman, who was driving, pointed over to his wife and told Abbott she had cancer. Abbott walked to the other side of the car, offered ashes to the woman and said a prayer for her and her husband before they rolled their windows up and drove away.


"It really is amazing," Abbott said. "I'm glad that we are here to offer something like that to people who need it. A lot of people say that their church is on the other side of town and they couldn't make it there, so they decided to come here. And other people haven't been to church, but feel some sort of draw that they should come."


Despite those powerful experiences, Abbott believes the most rewarding part of the Ashes To Go experience is not necessarily the interaction with the folks in the drive-thru line, but witnessing volunteers from the church get involved. "That's what I think is the real blessing," he said. "After last year, I really thought about the idea that it is more a blessing to give than to receive. I think the parishioners that were out here with me really had their faith enriched more than the people who drove thru."


"Time is what I am blessed with the most," Valmain said. "I don't have a lot of money, but I have a lot of time. So to be a good steward of that time is important to me."


Holy Comforter is continuing with that spirit of service during Lent, with a program called "40 Days of Service," which gives parishioners options to participate in large outreach events like working with Habitat for Humanity as well as small, personal service projects to complete every day like visiting a nursing home or offering to babysit for someone.


To see more photos of Ashes from churches across the Diocese, just visit our Facebook page.