The genial white-haired man came to the church alone Sunday night, producing a tiny newspaper clipping as if to verify he was in the right place.
"They say you're supposed to talk about these things, right?" he says. "I guess that's my problem. I'm not very good at that. I lost a wife and a daughter, so this is a pretty tough time of year for me."
A few minutes later, he takes a seat in the sanctuary of the Light of the Canyon United Methodist Church in Anaheim Hills. And in the relative quiet of the church, you realize that in one form or another he's taking part in a ritual nearly as old as humankind -- the quest for spiritual comfort when daily life seems bleakest.
The service is part metaphor, part reality. Dec. 21 usually gets the "shortest day of the year" tag, but that also creates the longest night. And since 2005, Pastor Jon Wesley Waterson has held the "Longest Night Service" at the church as a nocturnal beacon to hurt and troubled souls at a time of year when they know they're supposed to be happy.
"This service is about the light shining into the darkness of our lives," Waterson says to the audience of about 40. The common bond, he says, is that everyone has an aching on this night, whether because of the death of a friend or relative, job loss or financial trouble, or the constant presence of an inner demon -- an addiction, for example -- that seemingly can't be purged.
Because not everyone in the audience is a member of the congregation, he assures them they need not take part in anything that makes them uncomfortable. He also points out six church members -- "Angels" he calls them -- available to counsel or simply chat with anyone afterward. During the service, he says, there'll be a moment when audience members can say aloud, if they want to, the name of a person they're remembering this night.
And then Waterson sets about, in everyday language, trying to help them.
Some of you, he says, can easily identify the source of your pain. Others may just have a nagging sense that things aren't right.
That's why, he says, people seek comfort from strangers as well as friends. They seek the comfort and hope that God promises.
"Tomorrow, the light begins to shine bit by bit," Waterson says. "The light will take over the darkness."
The service unfolds and seems to crest as people begin saying names aloud: Ray . . . Greg . . . Mike . . . Al . . .
People in the audience grasp each others' hands and put their arms around companions. I learn later that "Al" was for Waterson's father, who died of cancer in February.
In his sermon, he talks about how several deaths in the congregation had dulled his joy this Christmas season. "Who among us," he asks, "would not give up all of the trappings of this holiday to have our lives made right again?"
This is his sixth such service, Waterson tells me Monday, with the first two coming at a Garden Grove church where he was the youth director. When he got his own church, he says, he knew he'd continue the legacy.
"To be honest," he says, "I wasn't aware on a personal level -- I was on an intellectual level -- about people who suffer during the holidays."
He wants people on The Longest Night to feel free to let their guards down. He doesn't want them forcing a happy face.
He agrees that the recitation of names was moving. "I'm sitting in the front of the worship service," he says, "but I can always tell when the crying is beginning. I can hear it."
I ask if his father's death made this year's service different. "Very much so," he says. "I expected myself to get through the sermon. I didn't expect the emotions to actually come up, because they've come up already. But when they come up, I'm not going to try to stuff them, that would be a bad example. Right when I said, 'I lost my father,' I took a glass of water. I was already feeling it, I took the water to steel myself."
The white-haired man lingered after the service. When I told him I was writing about the service, he balked at opening up about his situation or having his name in the paper.
We talked again Monday and he said he enjoyed the service. "It gave me a sense of peace and that's primarily what I want in life right now," he said. "I'm working on it, and I realize I will follow up on it, as far as the spiritual life."
I told him I wouldn't identify him in the paper. And just like the night before, I was struck by the contrast between his outer calm and friendliness and what he'd said about the holidays being tough for him. Another face in our midst, it seems, not showing us the pain he sometimes feels over loss in his life.
Knowing he's soldiering on, I wish him well. And I remember that before we parted Sunday night, I saw something that made me feel good. He had approached one of the Angels.
The Angel and the white-haired man looked to be having a good conversation.