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US faithful mark Ash Wednesday from a distance

Communities of faith in the US have grown more creative to reach congregants hungry for spiritual and social connections

Kimberly Hendricks will usher in the somber Christian period of Lent on Ash Wednesday from the parking lot of her Sacramento church instead of its sanctuary thanks to COVID-19 restrictions.

She and the other congregants of St. John’s Lutheran Church in California will listen to the familiar prayers from their car radios before marking their own foreheads with a cross using ash and oil they mixed themselves.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s what we can do right now,” said Hendricks, 50.



Nearly a year since the pandemic curbed large gatherings, communities of faith have grown more creative to reach congregants hungry for spiritual and social connections.

In many Catholic communities, ashes will not be worn on the forehead as is traditional in America as a symbol of mortality and penance in advance of the Easter holiday on April 4. Instead, most churches are following guidance from the Vatican to sprinkle the ashes on the congregant’s head. Others are applying them with Q-tips or cotton balls in a drive-through setup.

With the actual wearing of ashes not required by the Catholic church, some parishes are skipping application of ash entirely or holding only digital services due to safety concerns.

Online services and Zoom meetings now are mainstays of distance worship. But congregants like Hendricks say they need more to fill the void created by the lack of in-person interaction.

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“Religious or secular, there is a certain amount of Zoom fatigue,” said Bryan Visitacion, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento.

In suburban Atlanta, the COVID-era changes do not bother Fred Maxwell, 75, a congregant at Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church who has not missed an Ash Wednesday Mass since he was old enough to participate.

“It’s not the ritual that’s important,” Maxwell said. “It’s how you turn inward and try to be a better Christian, a better person.”

“They could put the ashes on my nose for all I care.”

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