It’s not the most wonderful time of the year, at least not for Clark County residents who are grieving the absence of parents, children and friends. Seasonal sadness could also stem from the loss of a home, job and financial stability, the loss of mobility due to disease or chronic pain or even the death of a beloved pet. The past few years have only deepened our collective wounds, whether it be the death of loved ones from COVID-19 or pandemic-fueled economic woes.
When you’re sad, however, the last thing you want is Burl Ives gushing about a holly jolly Christmas. You may prefer a dim, quiet place where you can cry if you feel like it and nobody minds. That place might be the Longest Night service at St. John Lutheran Church, held every year on the winter solstice, Dec. 21.
“The longest darkness of the year represents some people’s mood,” said Doris LeCount, a member of the St. John congregation who helped design the service, now in its 12th year. “Maybe they don’t feel like ‘rejoice, rejoice, rejoice’ this year because of what’s going on in their lives. This provides them a safe place to be real with their feelings.”
The lights in the sanctuary are turned down low and music is designed to be soothing. Attendees can expect quiet singing, prayer, meditative reading and stories about people who have gone through hard times, said LeCount, but the key descriptor for the evening is “contemplative.”
There’s also an opportunity later in the service to come forward and light candles, but it’s completely voluntary. Church members are also available for one-on-one prayer, but only if asked.
“If a person comes to the service and just wants to sit in the pew and not do anything, that’s fine. They’re not going to be asked to walk forward or anything,” said Diane Stevens, a church member and musician who has participated in the service every year. “They can do it however they wish.”
Even though it’s a Lutheran service, Stevens and LeCount emphasized that it’s open to anyone of any denomination — or no denomination at all. There’s no call to for attendees to participate unless they want to and there’s no pressure to return or to join the church.
LeCount is aware that many churches offer similar services by different names. Some occur on the winter solstice and some don’t, but all aim to offer solace to attendees. She first encountered the concept in the fall of 2011, after her husband had died. She was visiting family in Seattle and saw a notice for a longest night service. In the midst of her grief, it appealed to her.
“Since my grief was really fresh at this time, I thought there are people in my congregation in Vancouver who would benefit from this service,” LeCount said.
LeCount is clear about the fact that The Longest Night is a Christian worship service as well as a place where anyone can feel welcome to express grief. She’s quick to note that the dual objectives aren’t mutually exclusive. The somber service reminds her that joy can be found in the midst of sorrow.
“I believe that grief can be a sacred space. The best news is that we’re not in that space by ourselves because Christ Jesus is always in that space with us,” LeCount said. “ ‘The Longest Night’ is the way we title the service. If there’s a subtitle, it would be that there’s light in the darkness.”