First United Methodist Church has had a Longest Night worship service for two decades. This year, the focus on helping those who have suffered loss doesn’t end when the candles are extinguished.
The downtown Baton Rouge congregation is using this year’s service, to be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the church gymnasium, as a kickoff for GriefShare, a 13-week program beginning in January that ministers to the bereaved.
The Longest Night service takes the analogy of the Dec. 21 winter solstice, when days get longer and nights shorter in the Northern Hemisphere, with the need for those in grief to realize that light overcomes spiritual darkness, too.
“It can be a very difficult time of year for people who have lost people in the last year,” said Lamar Drummonds, executive director of sanctuary music and worship at FUMC. “It’s the first holiday season they’ve had without that loved one. It’s even for people who have had life transitions. Perhaps they have lost a job. It can be a very lonely time for people. Grief tends to be more acute at these times when other people are celebrating around them.”
Suzanne Rollins often attends the service, most memorably in 2014, when her husband, Dexter, was near death.
“Afterwards, our pastor came up to me and asked how it’s going,” she said. “I said, ‘Not very well. It’s getting close.’ So, we exchanged words, and we knew it would be soon. But I will not ever forget having the exchange … and the comfort that it brought me and the fact that I could connect with that spirituality and know that my church was with me, that God was with me and that I had strength, that I was given the strength and a light to endure whatever I needed to endure.”
The service is designed to be contemplative and includes Christmas carols and, at the end, a time for congregants to light a candle and leave it at the front of the church to mark the person or the circumstance they are grieving.
“You really do feel … there is a light in the darkness,” Rollins said.
Grief, however, is not erased in a moment, which is why the GriefShare sessions will be held at the church from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays from Jan. 12 through April 5. Dottie Frazzini, who has been a grief counselor for 20 years, coordinates the program at the church.
“I just can’t say enough about it,” Frazzini said. “I have a background in trauma and loss, you name it, but there’s nothing like GriefShare. The fact that it’s Christian-based appeals to people.”
Sessions include 30-minute videos and small-group discussion, Frazzini said. Topics tackle the challenges of grief, how it affects relationships, anger and complicating factors. Meetings are open to those who want to attend even if they’ve missed previous meetings.
“They say it’s like the emergency room,” Frazzini said. “The emergency room doesn’t close. It’s open at any time. You can drop in like you would go to the emergency room.”