Glitter and Drive Throughs: Chicago Churches Break Tradition on Ash Wednesday

glitter ash Wednesday chicagoThere are millions of practicing Catholics in the United States today, and many of them don’t have time to attend mass on the many Holy Days celebrated during Lent.

So an Indiana church decided to change that.

Ash Wednesday was celebrated on Wednesday, March 1, and it marked the start of the 40-day Catholic Lenten season that leads up to the celebration of Easter Sunday each year. As a tradition, the palms used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration are burned and turned into ashes. On Ash Wednesday, members of the church come together and have a cross of ashes applied to their foreheads.

But Catholics aren’t the only Christian denomination that celebrate this Holy Day.

Reverend Roger Bower of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Valparaiso, Indiana realized that many of his parishioners were too busy to come to church in the middle of the work week. He came up with an unusual alternative instead — donning a bright orange safety vest over his clerical robe and observing Ash Wednesday out in the parking lot. Bower stood outside the church and created a sort of drive-through Ash Wednesday service. He would say a small prayer and give each driver their own set of ashes from the comforts of their own car.

Neglecting vehicle maintenance costs the U.S. economy an estimated $2 billion a year, but hopefully these parishioners’ vehicles will be blessed thanks to the holy drive through. This was Bower’s fourth year doing a mobile Ash Wednesday service. He said the idea came from parishioners who had noticed a church in Minnesota doing something similar. And it seems that this simple act of kindness that, which gives parishioners the option to bow out of the traditional service but still get blessed, went a long way.

Mike Bodnar, a retired machinist and member of the church, explained to the Chicago Tribune what this convenience means to him.

“I was just driving by and saw the woman in the safety vest. “This is to remind us: ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust.'” We’re just here renting our bodies. Then it’s time to go,” he said.

For many practicing Catholics, the Lenten season is a time for renewal. In the same way that 53% of adults come back feeling refreshed after a vacation, it is a time for penance, charity, and giving back. And St. Andrew’s church isn’t the only congregation trying to give back for Lent.

In Chicago, another parish is trying to make the religious LGBTQ community feel welcome with their uniquely inclusive Ash Wednesday service.

And, naturally, they did it with glitter.

Berry United Methodist Church in Lincoln Square, Unity Lutheran Church in Edgewater, and Holy Covenant Metropolitan Community Church in suburban Brookfield all mixed their traditionally dark black ashes with purple glitter as a festive way to show support for Chicago’s LGBTQ community.

Known as the “Glitter Ash Wednesday” initiative, the event was spearheaded by Parity, a New York City organization that fights for the rights of the LGBTQ community. The goal is to have the church provide a message that represents both the traditional symbol of repentance that Ash Wednesday brings, but mixed in with a dash of solidarity.

April Gutierrez, pastor at Berry United Methodist, says that for her, the idea behind Glitter Ash Wednesday means much more than mixing glitter. It is a moment for Catholics and Christians everywhere to remember their religious values of inclusivity and acceptance.

“We want to make sure the Christian message is one of love and inclusivity, of empowering people to be who they are,” Gutierrez explained to the Chicago Tribune.

Pastors like Gutierrez believe that when looking at the deeper meaning of what Lent stands for, Glitter Ash Wednesday can prove to be something quite powerful indeed.

“Right now there are people in this country that feel threatened that their very presence should not be in public spaces. We are called to ensure that people know our Gospel teaches a gospel of love,” Gutierrez said. “Our visible sign should be a sign of solidarity of love and not one that excludes and condemns people.”