News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 18, 2013

MARK BENNETT: ‘Longest Night Service’ a time to reflect, remember

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Holiday images rarely depict hurt or struggle.

Smiling models, dressed like elves, grace department store ads. Santa Claus winks to the masses in TV commercials. As shopping mall P.A. systems and car radio speakers play “Feliz Navidad,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “White Christmas” and other classics hour after hour, we see bright, festive or spiritual displays in front yards, store windows and churches. Youngsters dress up and sing for parents and grandparents holding video cameras in school gyms.

Yet, many people are dealing with the loss of a loved one, a torn relationship, unemployment, job and income changes, health problems, homelessness, or a son or daughter deployed in the military overseas. Feeling “merry” is difficult for them.

First Congregational Church offers its “Longest Night Service,” on the shortest day of the year, specifically with those folks in mind.

“It’s a very quiet service that allows us to mark those people who are no longer with us, or the issues that make it tough this time of year,” said the Rev. Dawn Carlson, senior minister at the historic downtown Terre Haute church.

Anyone from anywhere is welcome to attend the “Longest Night Service,” now in its third year. “We sort of look at this as a community [wide] service,” Carlson said. It is the “Longest Night Service” and not the longest service of the year, she emphasized. The service is scheduled for 6 to 7 p.m. Saturday in the church at 630 Ohio St. If the address doesn’t ring a bell, think “Strawberry Festival.” First Congregational Church has conducted that tasty, popular tradition every June for the past quarter-century.

The atmosphere Saturday will differ.

Those attending can come inside, sit down and simply listen. During the service, Carlson invites anyone who wishes to light a candle for someone they’re remembering or representing something that’s troubling them. They also can take a stone and drop it into a bowl of salt water “to add it to God’s tears,” she said. Music will play, but singing isn’t necessary. Scriptures and poems will be read.

“Your level of participation is whatever is comfortable for you,” Carlson said.

“There is something special about spending time with people who are in the same boat,” she continued. “Sometimes, you’re just not happy, and if you give yourself the time and space to say that, it can help significantly.”

Carlson came to First Congregational in 2006 as associate minister, became senior minister in 2010, and began the “Longest Night Service” in 2011 after hearing about it from colleagues elsewhere. Some churches call it “Blue Christmas.” It falls on Dec. 21, the winter solstice, when daylight is at its minimum — just nine hours, 22 minutes and 55 seconds this year. For many who attend, the experience is cathartic.

“I know people who have sat here and cried through the whole service and then hugged me afterward and said, ‘Thank you,’” Carlson recalled. “And other people have smiled throughout.”

In the Christian faith, the season celebrates the birth of the savior, Jesus Christ. People can have that joy of salvation, yet still experience unhappiness with their personal life situations. “That unhappiness can come from so many places,” Carlson said, “and it doesn’t negate your joy.” Painful circumstances can shake believers “who’ve had their feet knocked out from under them and have questioned their faith,” she added. “And for some people, this service is a way back.”

The service isn’t a downer. “I like to think it ends on a very positive note — upbeat,” Carlson said, “but not negating what you’ve been through for the past 45 minutes.”

As she described the setting Tuesday afternoon, flickers of afternoon sunlight illuminated the scenes etched into the sanctuary’s colorful stained-glass windows. The tall, arched white ceiling will get a new coat of paint next year, she explained. The building is 110 years old, after all. The church itself started in Terre Haute in 1834. Membership stands at around 100 people.

“We’re a small church and a big family,” Carlson said.

For folks in need of that, the “Longest Night Service” may be a gift.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or