All are welcome at services of healing
“We make resolutions about all sorts of little things. Why not our spiritual well-being?” asks Georgetown resident Alice Stephens. A nurse by trade, she’s one of the original attendees of Georgetown’s ecumenical services of healing and wholeness. “I’ve gone there since the beginning,” she says. “Fifteen years now, I think.”
Though some details have changed over the years, the service has sustained its contemplative mood. “Very quiet,” says Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield, who attends regularly with his wife, Neta. “Lighting is subdued, and you can sit awhile and think about why you’re there.” Originally serving older members of First Presbyterian Church of Georgetown, the service now opens its doors to the public, welcoming all faiths and ages. What started out small and local is growing, with a public presence on social media that now draws musicians and others from the Austin scene to the Georgetown church.
People who experience the services, still held at First Presbyterian, often rave about their beauty. Stairs lead up from the street to a red-carpeted foyer where small songbooks lie on a low table next to brochures listing the services’ emphases. Inside the 143-year old sanctuary, flickering candles peek out from the sills of stained glass windows. Liz Keith often prepares the sanctuary by arranging and lighting the candles for the service. “When we come together at the Service of Wholeness,” she says, “we’re holding space for the Spirit to come in and do the work.”
“We were always experimenting,” says Dr. George Biggs, one of the service’s longtime participants. However, two years into the process, he and other leaders tried something that would change their gatherings forever. They decided to incorporate Taizé prayers and songs.
Taizé is an ecumenical monastery outside of Burgundy, France, renowned for the practice of meditative prayer based on song. “It’s very accessible music,” Judge Stubblefield says. “These are not the traditional hymns found in most churches.”
Alice Stephens reflects, “Being in that room, it’s like I’m transported back five or six hundred years, surrounded by the voices of monks.”
Dr. Biggs didn’t know it at the time, but the decision to use Taizé music would later bring France to central Texas. In the spring of 2014, four musicians from Georgetown’s Taizé service went to a training session and worship time held in Cedar Park. The group was surprised to meet three monks from the Taizé community, including Brother Emmanuel, author of the book Love, Imperfectly Known, when they passed through Austin on a “Tour of Trust.”
Dr. Biggs describes the inspirational time spent in the presence of the three monks as a “spark” that refocused the mission and energy of the wholeness service. First Presbyterian had long hosted an open communion table, and soon the service’s organizers began to advertise that “All are welcome, regardless of who you are or where you last attended church.”
After the meeting in Cedar Park, leaders introduced a few changes to the services, including more live musicians, lower lighting, and one long moment of silence. “The Community of Taizé’s way of praying,” Brother Emmanuel explains, “facilitates a more personal relationship with God.”
Taizé prayers involve many kinds of singers and instrumentalists, giving the songs a broad appeal. Somewhere between a hymn and a meditation, each prayer has short phrases that singers repeat many times “into eternity,” as Taizé founder Brother Roger describes it. A leader introduces a melody and the congregation follows. A solo instrument or voice weaves a tune around the singers. More soloists may then add to the sound, creating a rich texture out of simple melodic phrases. Georgetown’s service draws busy professionals from across the Austin area, like singer and pianist Sean Mann. “I can sit in meditation for an hour and there is no expectation, nothing owed,” he says.
For Judge Stubblefield, timing also plays an important part. “It takes place on Sundays at sunset. It’s that special time of the day when things are winding down,” he says. “You’re in the mood to consciously get centered. The services are a great way to wrap up the week and get ready for the next week.”
These contemplative services have something to offer attendees regardless of their faith traditions. “It was created with a sense of ministry to certain individuals with lasting illness or other types of felt need,” says Dr. Biggs. In fact, the Service of Wholeness is found in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Order. Sometime around 2000, Dr. Biggs worked with the late Reverends Jack Ware, Larry Sunkel, and Davis Taylor, using the Presbyterian service as a template for regular monthly meetings. “Small communion trays were passed around,” he continues. “Private prayers and the laying on of hands were included.”
Yet at the center of each service remain healing and renewal. Three people—Rev. Dr. Ann Hagmann, Rev. Dr. Martha Bessac, and lay leader Mary Meoli Johnson—offer private sessions of counseling and anointing with oil to those who ask. Other attendees light candles to symbolize personal concerns. “This is one of the main reasons Neta and I go,” says Judge Stubblefield, “for the prayers of intercession for people who go through difficult times, or for people who are ill or in spiritual pain.”
Judy Turnbull oversees all of these candles. After each service she takes them home. Without knowing the stories behind their lighting, she burns the candles and prays over them for the following month. “Each candle represents a prayer, someone caring and wanting God to know about it,” she says. “That’s why it is important to me to continue to pray.”
The sun sets on a brilliant Sunday afternoon. Song spills down Church Street at the corner of 7th Street. As passersby turn to listen, people slip silently into the white building. Austin violinist Shawn LeSure weaves a countermelody above ardent voices: “When the night becomes dark, / Your love is a fire,” they sing. The sound is simple and elemental.
Seated in the sanctuary, Alice Stephens holds this year’s brochure, which features an image of the spiral of light and color of the Glory Window in Dallas’s Thanks-Giving Square. “That’s an ancient symbol of renewal,” her husband, Jerry, offers. Alice smiles and nods. “Sometimes the soul can become injured, and this is a way to heal it.”
Services of Wholeness are held Sundays at 6:30 p.m. in the First Presbyterian Church, 703 S. Church St., during the months from September through May. The remaining services for this year fall on January 22, February 26, March 26, April 23, and May 21. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/taizegeorgetown or www.fpcgeorgetown.org. Learn more about the Taizé community’s work at www.taize.fr.