Healing Circles Houston: Where BIG Meets the Pace of Guidance

, ,
Healing Circles Houston

Houston, Texas, is the largest city in a state known for doing everything BIG. With an ever-growing population, Houston is on track to become the third largest city in America in 2020. Thanks to urban sprawl, the greater Houston area is larger than the state of New Jersey. At least 145 languages are spoken by city residents, and Houston is recognized as the most diverse city in the United States. It is a city fraught with great challenges and extraordinary opportunities. Residents know well the hardships of extreme poverty, severe weather, and dreadful state politics. Yet we also know Houston as a place of extreme wealth, unlimited generosity, and thankfully, compassionate local politics.  

This environment of great need and opportunity, along with our interest in working with Commonweal to build a Texas presence, led us to a one-bite-at-a-time approach to eating the proverbial elephant. With the energy of Diana and Kelly Lindsay’s “Just do it” style, Healing Circles Houston has been opening doors of opportunity with many like-minded organizations throughout our communities.

We currently partner or have developing initiatives with the following local nonprofits:

  • St. Paul’s United Methodist Church
  • The Jung Center
  • Council on Recovery
  • Compassionate Houston
  • Institute for Spirituality and Health
  • Greater Houston Healing Collaborative
  • Main Street Ministries
  • New Hope Housing
  • MD Anderson Cancer Center
  • Community for Conscious Aging

It has taken time to nurture and develop these relationships in a process that began several years ago. Opportunities present themselves when a pastor calls, a friend or colleague in need reaches out, and we listen to their stories with an open heart:

We have a couple who just lost their child.”

“I’m teaching this class on deep listening.”

“But I’m dying. What could I do?”

“Every year the same prognosis…I have no hope.”

“This completely fits our vision for building resilience.”

“We need a team (now) that can respond to Hurricane Harvey.”

The opportunities just have a way of showing up. Our response is an adventure. It may work – it may not, though it often does. We trust the process and don’t worry so much about the outcome. And by all means, we “move at the pace of guidance.”

David Spaw

Informal Circles at MD Anderson Cancer Center

Susan Rafte

Susan Rafte

Co-founder Susan Rafte opened our practice in 2016 with a beautiful advanced cancer circle that met weekly for more than a year. One by one, we lost our beloved participants, several of whom had become part of our core team. Each of our lives were enriched by beautiful stories as we shared the worst times and the best times. Susan, who is a dedicated volunteer with MD Anderson, continues her practice in circles of two and small groups there. Each week, she volunteers in the Nellie B. Connally Breast Center, meeting and visiting with patients. Although her interactions with patients do not take place in a typical healing circle, the intimate connections created through listening and sharing establish an informal healing circle. Sometimes it is just one-on-one, and other times a family member or caregiver will join the unceremonious and unofficial healing circle. 

Healing Circles in Faith-Based Organizations

Helen Spaw

Helen Spaw

At the beginning of 2016, David Spaw introduced healing circles to his niece Helen Spaw, and she became interested in leading a circle. During a training session with Diana and Kelly Lindsay, Helen realized that Healing Circles would work well with her background in art therapy, and she was excited to host. By that summer, she and Rev. Nataly Negrete began their first bilingual healing art circles at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. Although they began with the idea of hosting a circle twice per month, circles grew to almost twice per week by that fall.

After the national Healing Circles conferences in 2018 and 2019, Helen was inspired to grow the program and add new practices in the circles at St. Paul’s. She currently offers women’s healing art circles, divorce care art circles, a Me Too art circle, and also a  healing art circle at the Wesley Community Center for senior citizens. Some of these circles are bilingual, and all use art therapy exercises as part of the circle. This summer, they will have an art studio healing circle that is open to anyone. Helen hosts more than 80 healing art circles per year at St. Paul’s and has deeply felt the impact these circles have had. Patti Hale, a healing circle participant, wrote this poem after experiencing her first healing circle with us at St. Paul’s:

Scar Tissue

Don’t put a bandaid on it
Go deep, deep into the pain
This requires soul surgery

Pour the oil of letting go on your hopelessness and despair
make a bonfire of the losses
don’t contain the ashes
scatter them on your garden of becoming.

The poem speaks to the wisdom and process of what is happening in art circles at St. Paul’s.

Healing Circles for Grief and Loss

Kat Denton

Kat Denton

This profound level of healing is also found in our grief and loss circles, which were developed with the support of Khris Ford, a founder of grief and loss organizations in Houston and Austin. We started the program at St Paul’s with a learning circle in 2016. These circles are typically a six-week series and have been offered frequently ever since. Most recently, these circles have been co-facilitated by Kat Denton and Nanette Saha, who come to this work informed by their own journeys through grief. After their most recent series, Kat was joined by Becky Dodds to offer a mind-body skills workshop to the group. With their training in mind-body medicine skills for trauma recovery, Kat and Becky introduced tools for resilience and healing to participants.

The success of these offerings will continue as a new series of healing circles for grief and loss begins in late June, with plans to continue resiliency workshops. Kat and Nanette are grateful for the opportunity to offer a safe space for those who are experiencing loss to come together and be supported. They strive to ensure that participants are allowed their full voice and feel deeply heard so that the conditions for healing are always present. 

Circles for Veterans

Ed Halloran

Ed Halloran

The experience of wholeness and connection experienced in grief and loss circles was the very catalyst for Healing Circles work with veterans. After participating in a grief and loss circle in 2016, former Sergeant James Pride, a US Army veteran, felt moved to create an opportunity to share and experience the same healing with veterans. James trained as a Healing Circles host and, in January of 2017, the healing circle Veterans Helping Veterans was called and convened. Ed Halloran (a core team member), Jennifer West, and Nina Hall have been instrumental in developing and sustaining the plan. Meeting weekly since its inception, the circle includes a diverse cross-section of veterans with varied backgrounds, professions, family, and lifestyles including attorneys, contractors, skilled and unskilled workers, and people who are in recovery, homeless, and unemployed.

Although we initially focused our circle rounds and questions on service-related topics, we discovered that many preferred to address their current circumstances and conditions, dealing with their military experience only as it relates to current challenges. As a peer-led support group, we have learned to invite, allow and support participants in moving at the pace of their own inner guidance. We have also found value in blending the needs of the participants with the needs of the community. Circle participants are invited to serve and share in volunteer roles with landscaping, clothing drives, and other events at St. Paul’s. Veterans find value in opportunities to serve and connect with others in caring and supportive roles and report that this healing circle enriches their experience of their lives today as well as their time in service. Each circle creates an experience of camaraderie and belonging, and each circle harvest round is an opportunity to leave behind some grief, pain, or self-judgment.

Nurses and Healing Circles

Susan Cooley

Susan Cooley

Healing Circles Houston is eager to develop a nursing initiative that is still in an early stage with one of the largest hospital systems in the greater Houston area, employing approximately 23,000 people. Susan Cooley RN and Lindsay Espejel RN are leading the charge. The chief nursing officer has expressed a strong interest in pursuing healing circles to build resilience in the nursing community. We recently held a larger second circle, which included nurse-leaders and health care professionals. Nurses in the group are eager to put Healing Circles principles and agreements to work with teams and at the bedside. Shift-change huddles and leadership meetings are logical first steps for implementation. Excitement fills the room in each circle. We look forward to facilitating healing circles within this organization, bringing deep sharing and vulnerability to the culture.

The Institute for Spirituality and Health in the Texas Medical Center has agreed to co-sponsor a large training in the future, and we look forward to this partnership and opportunity to bring Healing Circles to the nursing community.

Deep Listening Circles

Becky Dodds

Becky Dodds

Another successful Houston partnership was formed with the Jung Center. In early January 2017, the deep listening circle was created from a community of people who attended a workshop in search of hope and healing in the midst of political upheaval. David Spaw invited attendees to join him for healing circles, and a new Healing Circles community was quickly formed. Two of those attendees, Becky Dodds and Margo Toombs, began hosting the circles after attending training that spring. Although the initial intent of deep listening is still at the heart of this circle, it has evolved over the years. While the circle was open to all for the first year, Margo and Becky began to discover that many of their circles were attended only by women. During those circles, participants were forming bonds that allowed them to access deeper healing. In the interest of allowing these bonds to continue to grow, the deep listening circle evolved into a women-only circle in early 2018.

This strong partnership with the Jung Center has allowed for other explorations and initiatives for the Healing Circles family. Becky hosted an eight-week dream circle series in the fall of 2018 and has offered mind-body medicine groups to Hurricane Harvey survivors and to women recovering from sexual trauma. In addition, Michael Lerner offered two beautiful talks at the Jung Center, one for our Healing Circles following and another for the Jung Center fall fundraiser last year, which surpassed their goals.

Our latest initiative at the Jung Center is with the Community for Conscious Aging. This large group recently formed as a result of great interest in building a learning community around aging. Healing Circles Houston will offer learning events to this group for both healing circles and building resilience with restorative practices. We believe this idea will take off and further our outreach to a new population.

Healing Circles for the Vulnerable

Clasped handsMain Street Ministries, a nonprofit organization dedicated to those facing cycles of poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, and incarceration, offers recovery circles. These were circles started by our friends at the Council on Recovery, a major local institution in the world of drug and alcohol abuse. We recently learned that a circle that began last year has become an open healing circle for professionals from different agencies working with addiction and human trafficking. We look forward to supporting their efforts as they continue their valuable work with the community.

We recently completed training New Hope Housing community leaders. This is an amazing community including eight sites with more than 1,100 residents and growing. The sites are located throughout the city and created for residents with low or no income. Approximately 65 percent of the residents were homeless and came in from the streets. This is an adventure in adapting our Healing Circles modality to a very different community than our typical experience. Their team has initiated “coffee and conversation” circles adapting our process to an existing community tradition. We will follow up to help them with themes, questions, and offer ideas and support – assisting in the development of a New Hope Circle Way. We also plan to host a monthly self-care circle for community staff and provide a venue to introduce the process to new staff and administrative support.

This has been an enlightening and fulfilling experience for our team and will provide a wonderful opportunity to spread our trauma/resilience skills learned from the Center for Mind-Body Medicine.

Healing Circles in Trauma and Recovery

After the heavy impact of Hurricane Harvey on our community, Healing Circles became a part of the Greater Houston Healing Collaborative (GHHC). The GHHC was assembled to respond to major local area traumatic events: storm recovery, shootings, fires, etc. We are building an ever-growing team of volunteers from prominent area psychosocial organizations to respond to the great local challenges of the day. The collaborative currently has more than 150 professionally trained volunteers to lead these circles. Healing Circles Houston is pleased to be part of this team and the ongoing Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts through the collaborative.

Virtual Healing Circles for Hosts

Monthly host gatherings are an important time for hosts and guardians to collaborate, share ideas and initiatives, and take a special moment for self-care. As you can imagine, gathering hosts from across the city to one central meeting can be a huge challenge when you cover an area the size of New Jersey! As Susan Rafte points out, it can take 40 minutes to go two miles at shift change near the Texas Medical Center. With this in mind, last month, we switched our host gathering to a Zoom (videoconference) circle, and participation went up 300 percent. We may be on to something! We intend to supplement our monthly gatherings with quarterly times together so we don’t miss out on face-to-face connection.


We owe it all to the teams that have shared in these initiatives. Our hosts: Susan Rafte, David Spaw, Billy Baun, Karen Moore, Becky Dodds, Ed Halloran, Helen Spaw, Susan Cooley, Freddy Rogers, Kat Denton, Lindsay Espejel, Brooke Summers-Perry, Ann Lister, Belle MacFarlane, Nanette Saha, Nina Hall, David Sunday, Margo Toombs, James Pride, Michael Bosch, John Harris, Cyd Thomas, Jennifer West and Maria Alice Papanicolau. Our partners and mentors: Michael Lerner, Rachel Remen, Diana and Kelly Lindsay, Janie Brown, Gretchen Schodde, Khris Ford, Jim Gordon, John Graham, Matt Russell, Andrew Wolfe, Nataly Negret, Sean Fitzpatrick, Mel Taylor, Alejandro Chaoul, Kimberly Hickson, Maryann Tebbe, and Sarah Mangrem. Special thanks to the many others who have participated in and been a part of Healing Circles Houston through this journey. And deepest gratitude to Becky Dodds, Ed Halloran, and all who contributed to this post.

Photo credits

Photos of Susan Rafte, Ed Halloran and Becky Dodds by Fred Rogers

Photos of Helen Spaw, Kat Denton, and Susan Cooley courtesy Helen, Kat, and Susan respectively

Photo of clasped hands is in the public domain and sourced from WikiMedia Commons