Reviving Vespers: First-years at Westmont reinstate worship night gathering on Sunday nights

Inside+the+Voskuyl+Chapel%2C+where+Vespers+has+been+meeting+for+the+2021-2022+school+year

Inside the Voskuyl Chapel, where Vespers has been meeting for the 2021-2022 school year

Kaiah Gloria, Staff Writer

Vespers, a worship service held on Sunday nights at 8:15 p.m. in the prayer chapel, is a 45 year-old tradition at Westmont. Even so, the tradition has gone through many eras and taken on new flavors. The COVID-19 pandemic forced Vespers to pause for a time, but in fall 2022, first-year students rose to reinstate their own version. 

This tradition was first established in 1977 by philosophy professor Jim Taylor during his time as a student at Westmont. Taylor explained that, at the time, he was involved with a student ministries program called Christian Concerns.

The program had on-campus, off-campus and international ministries. Initially, all three ministries were overseen by one single student: a classmate of Taylor’s, Drew Gladney. However, when Gladney did a semester exchange program at Wheaton College, he discovered that Wheaton had a different way of organizing for their student ministries, as well as a vespers worship service.

At Wheaton, one person oversaw the on-campus ministries, one person headed the local ministries, another was in charge of the international ministries, and a final person oversaw the three leaders. Taylor became the head of on-campus ministries, and Gladney suggested having a Vespers service, similar to Wheaton College. 

After hearing Gladney’s suggestion, Taylor organized a worship night. He recalled, “I just decided I would start on every Sunday evening, meeting in Clarke A lounge upstairs.” He advertised the service with a sign in the DC, brought his guitar and worshiped with about ten other students. 

Taylor emphasized that most of Vespers’ success in later years was not something he could fairly take credit for, as it “wasn’t until after I’d left that other students came along with more ideas, more enthusiasm and more proclivity to focus on Vespers.”

Taylor described the original heart of Vespers as a place outside of Westmont chapels to worship that “was just for students and just led by students that would involve a kind of smaller worship orientation and fellowship-oriented time together.”

In later years, Vespers would move far beyond its humble roots. Zab Potter, a current senior at Westmont, was involved with pre-COVID-19 Vespers. Potter described what Vespers was like before the pandemic: “It was in the Page MPR and it was bigger, not just acoustic: we had piano bass, guitar, electric guitar, sometimes just acoustic amped up and then, like, multiple singers, and the lyrics on the screen.” Vespers was a very involved process. 

Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be phasing out, Vespers gathers in the prayer chapel on Sundays night, with acoustic instruments and voices as the ingredients for worshiping God. Every Vespers service starts off with a reading of Matthew 18:20: “For where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I with them.” 

First-year students Emmie Matthews and Jon Kratzberg were the post-COVID-19 founders of Vespers, later joined by Anna Nadell, Isaiah Underwood, Jonah Swanson and Hannah Denney.

While Matthews had known about Vespers before attending Westmont, Kratzberg did not until Matthews told him about it. The moment that really birthed their desire to reinstate Vespers occurred during the first-year student retreat, where the two students described their desire for an impactful worship night. Matthews explained, “We were just stargazing, listening to worship music [and] just wanted to create this space of worship every week.” 

This stargazing-worship moment captured what stands at the heart of the revitalized Vespers. Kratzberg described Vespers as a place where people can rest and reset before going into the following week of classes and responsibilities. Matthews described the importance of comfort in Vespers, saying “the Spirit has led us to create an atmosphere where people are free to worship however they feel and it’s just so rewarding to watch people worship in their different ways.” 

According to Matthews, intimacy is highly valued in Vespers: “We wanted to make it more of a smaller, intimate kind of gathering and just not a performance at all.”  Both leaders emphasized creating an environment free of judgment and performance-based mindsets.

Kratzberg said, “One of the beauties of Vespers is that it is for people, not an institution or, like, a specific alignment.” This has allowed space for many political, social and theological views to coincide in one place. According to Matthews, the ideal that makes this possible is: “leave your worries and troubles and opinions at the door and just come and worship … God is at the center, and should be at the center.” 

God’s centrality unites the Vespers team. As Kratzberg said, “We all agree in the supremacy of God’s wisdom over our own.” This core value has led to Scripture being read with each song. 

Also central to Vespers is prayer, for which they have a prayer journal free for anyone to use. A dream Kratzberg and the team have for Vespers is to form a team properly trained to pray for others. Furthermore, Matthews invited people to message Vespers instagram @westmont_vespers, if they need prayer or praise for anything. 

Matthews invites students not only to attend the worship night, but also to join the Vespers team. Kratzberg said, “If you want to be involved in a medium-commitment ministry opportunity, talk to us.” 

Potter, who recently attended the post-COVID-19 Vespers, appreciated the inviting space it has created. She explained her understanding of the heart of Vespers as “a desire for presence with God through the act of worship … surrounded by people who also just desire to be in God’s presence.”

She commented on the beauty of Vespers as the service has maintained its original heart through its ebbs and flows. The free choice that comes with Vespers, as opposed to mandatory chapel, is something Taylor, Potter, Matthews and Kratzberg all remarked on and is central to continuing in this heart of worship. 

Potter also said, “I thought it was very refreshing, and I appreciated the intentional use of Scripture, and I really liked the prayer journal opportunity.” Potter enjoyed the “gentleness with which the leaders led … I just think there was a mutuality with no power dynamics.” 

An addition to Vespers, Potter would enjoy an extended, open prayer time. She explained, “praying is vulnerable, and praying out loud is vulnerable, but it’s also what keeps you accountable and I think it strengthens community, and also being aware of issues that are happening beyond our personal lives.”

Throughout the past 45 years, Vespers has encountered many obstacles and changes, persevering through all of them with a heart of worship. As someone who has experienced Vespers in its many stages, Potter has reaped many rewards for the experience and “would challenge students, as a whole, to embrace the slows sometime,” because it “enriches relationship with God and other people.” 

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