Holding a bowl of palm ash, the Rev. Kyle Meier reached through the window of a minivan and drew a cross on the driver’s forehead, offering quick words of prayer while the engine hummed.
“From dust you came,” he spoke in the parking lot of The Peak Church, “and to dust you shall return, but dust you shall not remain. Have a great day! There’s coffee up ahead on the right.”
As commuters flowed through, Meier led his congregation’s first drive-thru Ash Wednesday service, handing out cross necklaces to kids in the back seats. Parking attendants guided drivers with orange traffic wands. As Meier finished his prayers, he bumped fists with the faithful, sending them off with, “See you, brother man!”
“This was a move to demystify Ash Wednesday,” he said. “Jesus has this really cool way in Scripture of bringing sacred moments into everyday, secular mundane events.”
This year, churches in a variety of denominations held “ashes to go” services in at least 33 states nationwide, a movement aimed at bringing God where people live and work. The ashes, burned from the leaves of the previous year’s Palm Sunday service, traditionally show penitence in the weeks before Easter – a Christian’s acknowledgment that humankind turns to dust.
But to Meier, the service need not be stuffy, or even indoors. Cars started rolling in to his Methodist church’s parking lot on North Salem Street at 7 a.m., many of them receiving double-sided ashes through the driver and passenger side doors.
“We had people asking, ‘Do you serve Presbyterians?’ ” Meier said. “Absolutely! Come on!”
More traditional Christians may reject the drive-thru idea as undignified or irreverent, and Meier pointed to some of this discussion within The Peak’s congregation. Beth Bordeaux, for example, came from an Episcopal background where liturgy is lengthier and more formal.
“I’m used to spending a half hour on my knees in confession,” she said, “so I was like, ‘Eh.’ But the first four or five people left here in tears. It’s a prayer they may never have received before. It’s powerful. So I’m good.”
During a lull, church members chuckled at a website that jokingly displayed the types of ashes one might receive: the OCD, a perfectly drawn cross; the Harry Potter, a lightning bolt; the Load Toner, almost too faint to see.
As the rush started up again, a Jeep pulled into the lot for service on both sides, a pair of kids in the back. The family prayed, received ashes and rolled away in the time it takes to order breakfast.
“If God comes to meet us where we are,” said Kate Cox, a software worker in Cary, “we can meet in a drive-thru Ash Wednesday service.”
“It’s also far more personal,” said husband Alan Cox, noting that Meier prayed for him at a distance close enough to shake hands.
In a 90-minute span, The Peak saw roughly 50 cars pull in for drive-thru ashes. “We’re so busy we sometimes don’t even make it to church,” said Sharon Kissick, her 10-year-old son Jaden in the seat beside her. “We can still carry Jesus through the day.”
Only one detail missing: Biscuits.
“Maybe next year,” Meier joked.