For the last year, churches of all faiths have had to adapt to worshipping and praying remotely thanks to the onset of COVID-19 and the resulting pandemic.
And while churches have been allowed to return to in-person services as the result of a Supreme Court ruling last week — albeit with a strict capacity rule — one Lodi house of worship decided to observe Ash Wednesday in a way that keeps their parishioners as safe as possible.
Staff at St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church sat in their 1055 S. Lower Sacramento Road parking lot at noon Wednesday, waiting for parishioners to arrive and receive their ashes while they remained behind the wheel.
“The drive-thru part is to dispense ashes because we are not yet comfortable having people in person,” the Rev. Peter Ackerman said. “And a lot of our parishioners aren’t yet comfortable coming in person, so we’re making a point to try and provide for them the best we can.”
Ackerman and his church staff held online services Wednesday morning, then provided two drive-thru opportunities for parishioners to receive their ashes later in the day.
A second drive-thru was conducted at 5 p.m. Both ceremonies lasted an hour.
About two dozen vehicles arrived at the church for the morning drive-thru ceremony, with Ackerman and the Rev. Deacon Tom Hampson applying ash to the foreheads of those inside their cars with gloved hands.
Ackerman plans to conduct another Ash Wednesday drive-thru next year, even if COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
“There’s a lot we’re learning in COVID that we’re adopting from now on,” he said. “Like, we weren’t streaming services before. Now we will be, and the Ash Wednesday drive-thru may continue, even though next year we hopefully will have usual services, we’ll still offer a time when people can drive through and receive. And that will be for people who otherwise couldn’t make the services because of work or other commitments, they can come by and get their ashes later.”
Some of Ackerman’s parishioners said they miss celebrating the first day of Lent inside the church, but receiving their ashes while sitting behind the wheel was something that was both creative and needed in order to stay safe.
“It’s kind of not as emotional or involved as it usually is,” Dawn Duck said. “But we do what we have to do, it is what it is this year.”
Irene Beasom said the drive-thru method was ideal for older members of the church, who are the most vulnerable to COVID-19.
“This is great. I like it. I feel more safe,” she said after Ackerman performed his ritual of marking her forehead. “I do miss going into the church, but until I get my vaccine ... I’m a high risk.”
Beasom had signed up to receive her first dose of vaccine, she said, but had not been contacted as of Wednesday to get one. She was hoping to get one as soon as possible.
St. John the Baptist was one of the few churches in Lodi to not return to in-person gatherings, following the guidance of its local diocese.
The church has only had two in-person Sunday services since the pandemic began, Hampson said, and because many of the church’s parishioners are older, the decision to remain remote made sense.
The drive-thru Ash Wednesday service was an opportunity to provide a traditional observance at the beginning of Lent, he added.
“It is a a little bit odd, but this entire period since the middle of March last year has been all about improvisation and how do we adapt to this crazy situation,” Hampson said. “How do we make our tradition meaningful when there are so many restrictions on how we can be together? This is just one more example of how we’ve tried to adapt to a situation.”
Ackerman said the amount of visitors during the noon hour was a good turn-out for a first-time, and less conventional method of celebrating Ash Wednesday.
“It’s been a great response,” he said. “I’ve been happily surprised by not only people who have shown up that I know, but the amount of people who have shown up that I’ve never met. Somehow word has gotten out, because we didn’t advertise.”