ASBURY, Iowa — Nancy Fuchs, of Dubuque, rolled down her window to shout to Pastor Paul Amlin when she saw him in the parking lot of Lord of Life Lutheran Church on Wednesday.
“I’m so glad you’re doing this,” she said as Amlin approached her car.
Amlin then used a gloved hand to spread ashes in the shape of a cross on Fuchs’ forehead, while she remained masked and seated in her car.
Lord of Life Lutheran Church was just one place of worship that found a way to observe Ash Wednesday traditions this year while following recommended COVID-19 health and safety measures. The church offered a drive-thru for congregation members to receive ashes on their forehead, symbolizing the start of the season of repentance.
“The imposition of ashes is a pretty important, tangible start to the season of Lent. It kind of sets the tone of the season of Lent as we prepare for the 40-day journey,” Amlin said. “We wanted to make a way for people to receive the ashes and make it as safe as possible. We had lots of conversations about how to do that.”
Church officials even discussed giving out little bags of ashes. Eventually, Amlin said, a setup not unlike the church’s successful drive-thru food distribution events was decided on.
People drove through the church’s parking lot, and the event was over in time for people watching the church’s Ash Wednesday service online at their homes. Between vehicles, Amlin switched out the disposable gloves he was using to give ashes.
Amlin heard many positive comments from congregation members about the drive-thru, as it provided a safe way to feel connected to the faith community.
“The simple thing of being able to drive through and receive the ashes can make a huge difference for folks,” he said.
For Fuchs, the drive-thru also served as an opportunity for some human interaction while still staying safe.
“I’m just so grateful. I haven’t been out of the house for a week,” she said. “It’s been a long winter, and things just got so messed up last year at Easter, so it feels good to be getting back into it.”
At several Dubuque Catholic churches — including Church of the Resurrection, Cathedral of St. Raphael and St. Patrick Church — disposable Q-tips dipped in oil were used to give individuals ashes at Ash Wednesday services.
“They’ll receive ashes in the way that they’re used to without any human contact,” said the Rev. Phil Gibbs, pastor of Church of the Resurrection.
He added that the church offered four different service times on Wednesday, as another way to reduce the number of congregants coming to church at once.
Observers of Lent often make lifestyle changes between Ash Wednesday and Holy Sunday, marking the season with prayer, fasting and thinking of others. Gibbs said this year’s Lent season brings the struggles brought on by the pandemic even closer to people’s minds.
“During this COVID season, we’re more mindful of struggling and suffering,” he said.
For Lord of Life Lutheran Church members, Ash Wednesday also marked one of the first instances of in-person interaction at the church in nearly a year. While Iowa churches have been able to hold in-person services since May, Amlin said Lord of Life hasn’t yet since the church doesn’t have the cross-ventilation or large seating area that other churches have.
Instead, the church has livestreamed and posted recordings of services, as well as hosted Zoom Bible study sessions and meetings.
“Through all of this, the mission of the church hasn’t stopped,” he said. “We’ve been forced to think outside the box. After the pandemic, I think we’re going to have people access things online for quite a while. … I can’t help but notice how vibrant our congregation has been, even online.”
Lori Burrows, of Dubuque, mentioned that Amlin also has held several services in the church’s parking lot since COVID-19 began. Burrows was driving Ramona Kartman, of Dubuque, to receive their ashes Wednesday.
Kartman, who received her ashes with her dog, Candy, in her lap, also gave Amlin homemade cookies for his work.
“(Amlin) has done such a great job,” Kartman said. “He’s really just trying to normalize things for everybody.”