One Sunday evening a month, Alex Mrakovich takes a break from the hustle and bustle of life to relax in a candlelit, music-filled space where he puts aside his worries.
Mrakovich is a regular participant in the Open Space program, hosted by Church of the Apostles, a Seattle-based worshiping community of the ELCA and the Episcopal Church. Open Space provides a place where anyone can drop in and listen to live music in a serene environment.
The monthly gathering regularly attracts 10 to 40 people. Attendees bring yoga mats, pillows or cushions to sit or lie on as they immerse themselves in the experience. They are encouraged to silence their cellphones and themselves as they enter the space inside the Fremont Abbey Arts Center, located inside what was originally St. Paul Lutheran Church, built in 1914.
“It’s a place where I can sit and breathe and take in sound and the flicker of candlelight in the company of strangers,” Mrakovich said. “It’s a space where my questions and judgments and fears can slowly be suspended as I practice being present to both myself and the vibrations and sound all around me.”
Open Space grew from the eight-minute period for reflection that Apostles maintained after its sermons.
“It answers a longing they have for spiritual experiences within a community.”
“Open Space is an extended time for contemplation,” said Lacey Brown, Apostles music director. “It’s intimate. There is no stage or lighting. You’re in a room with music that surrounds you.”
Ivar Hillesland, pastor of Apostles, noted that there are many in the Seattle area who seek spiritual solace but are not affiliated with a church and may be wary or distrustful of religion. The intent of Open Space, he said, is not to recruit church members but to respond to people’s need for connection.
“A lot of people who go to [Open Space] have nothing to do with [our congregation],” he said. “It answers a longing they have for spiritual experiences within a community. We’re hosting a communal, spiritual place without the programming involved. It is evangelism, but we’re not trying to get [visitors] to join the church.”
Mrakovich appreciates that Open Space doesn’t offer preaching or an explicit message. He finds music to be a powerful tool for restoration. “All are welcome to receive something in this 30-to-45-minute experience,” he said. “I believe music and the arts can be such a healing and rejuvenating conduit in this age we are living in.”
For Nathan Marion, executive director of Abbey Arts, the cooperation between Apostles and his organization, which hosts Open Space, is a natural fit.
“Music and arts are important to both Abbey Arts and the Church of the Apostles,” he said. “We saw an opportunity to provide a relaxed, meditative environment, at no cost to our community, that aligned with both organizations’ values.”
Open Space is just one element in a vital music ministry fostered by Apostles, Brown said. The congregation also produces albums featuring songs written and recorded by church members, for example. “We value that original work that becomes part of the liturgy,” she said.
Services at Apostles often feature music in addition to other liturgical elements, including poetry, videos and silence. Brown said 28 musicians are involved in the church.
“We do a lot of music [played] underneath the readings,” she said. “Or we chant a song that’s more poetic.”
Quiet moments can be just as powerful as music. “We don’t put music everywhere,” she said. “We do value silence too.”
Whatever tool is used in worship, there is one objective, Brown said, adding,“It’s for the purpose of bringing the story of God to life.”
“It’s for the purpose of bringing the story of God to life.”
Hillesland said Mission Support funding from the churchwide organization has enabled Apostles, which formed in 2007, to create innovative programs such as Open Space and other ministries that reach out to the community.
“If it weren’t for the generous Mission Support we have received throughout the years, first as a mission of the ELCA and now as a newly formed congregation, it would have been nearly impossible to invest in the new programming and innovations of our worshiping community, which have been so vital to our flourishing,” Hillesland said. “It is because of the freedom granted to us through this funding that we are able to serve God and our neighbors most fully.”
Mrakovich said Open Space gives him time to connect with himself, others and a greater power: “In a mysterious way, as deeply artistic and creative spaces often do, Open Space is a mode of communion, a kind of visceral and embodied sacrament that holds shared space for myself, God and the stranger sitting next to me.”
Brown doesn’t even mind if people fall asleep in the peaceful setting. “We sometimes hear snoring and, in my opinion, that’s great,” she said. “It means they’re slowing down. In our lives today, we don’t get a lot of chances to sit and be.”
Hillesland believes Open Space is satisfying Seattleites’ deepest cravings. “Some churches offer food pantries that respond to the physical need for food,” he said. “We offer a spiritual, musical experience for people who are hungry for that. … It is spiritual food for people.”