"You Hurry Back Now": Nursing home ministry in the diocese

September 15, 2016
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by Deacon Nancy Belcher and  Deacon Beth Simpson

Envision what it is like to sit all day without family or friends surrounding you. You are told when to eat and where. You have little input into your own activities for the day. You are alone and grieving all that you have had to give up—your possessions, neighbors, a familiar routine, perhaps a spouse and a pet.

Now change that image. Imagine a visit from people who have no agenda other than to worship with you, sing with you, and enjoy making a connection with you. People who are happy to see you, who know your name and help you remember happier days. This is what nursing home ministry looks like from an elderly person’s perspective.

Flip the image one more time and think about that same visit from the perspective of those who show up at the nursing home. You started your day tired and just want to sit on the couch and veg. You drag yourself up and drive to a scary place you’ve never visited before. You imagine you can see your future in the faces of the residents. However, once you start smiling, introducing yourself and engaging in a worship service, an amazing thing happens. You all see a glimpse into God’s kingdom also known as nursing home ministry.

Deacon Nancy describes her two nursing home ministries
The good folks at St. Mark’s Church in Portland, Missouri, have been going to Riverview Nursing Center, in Mokane since February 2014. We visit on the first Sunday of each month. Greetings are exchanged and we re-introduce ourselves. It takes us a bit of time to get everyone in place, which gives us time to ample time to make sure we meet and greet everyone. 

After introductions, we begin our time together singing Amazing Grace. We read the gospel lesson, pray for the community, we pray familiar prayers and sing hymns. Then it's time for a sing-a-long, led by St. Mark's priest Marshall Crossnoe. Sometimes we've visiting musicians, Ted Koenig and guests. There is such joy in the room from singing that we don’t want to stop. We end with He’s Got the Whole World. It never fails, we are asked to hurry back. We leave having glimpsed God’s kingdom. 

The second nursing home ministry is “Godly Play on the Road” for the elderly. It is held on the second Saturday of each month at Jefferson City Nursing and Rehab with folks from Grace Church in Jefferson City. 

We begin with the sing-a-long with musicians, Ted Koenig and Marshall Crossnoe and sometimes additional guests like Terry Allen. Then comes the worship part of the service with the collecting prayer from the previous Sunday. 

After prayers, we do a craft project that relates to the Godly Play story one of the members will tell. In the beginning, we played Hymn Title Bingo but the residents seem to enjoy the crafts more. 

Godly Play was developed for young children. The faith-at-home website describes it as very simple Bible stories, "with simple props, and offered without interpretation or moral instruction." After a story is presented, the participants and storyteller "wonder together" about the passage.

Our Godly Play storytellers are Sandy Weis, Cathy Libey, and Joseph Figo. We end our time together with the Lord’s Prayer.

Deacon Beth describes nursing home ministries 
A typical Wednesday finds me heading east on I-70 by 7:45 AM. I enjoy the 40-minute commute to Mexico, Missouri, home of St. Matthew’s Church. It is a low-traffic, low-stress drive that gives me time to prepare for the day ahead.

One Wednesday each month, and one Sunday, I work in the ministry that is the heart of my work in Mexico. I sit with elders in two long-term care communities to read a passage of scripture and offer a reflection on it. We proclaim the Psalm appointed for the day, and I share some of the beautiful prayers in the Book of Common Prayer. 

They especially appreciate the Prayers for the Sick on pages 458-461. I recently printed the prayers For Sleep and In the Morning on card stock and gave them to each resident. They comment on the beauty and appropriateness of the prayers, and I am grateful for the riches of the BCP! 

At one home, we sing favorite old hymns such as In the Garden, Amazing Grace, and How Great Thou Art. I have resurrected my love of playing hymns on the piano—a skill that had been lying dormant and is now serving me well. I have learned that a verse or two is all that is needed. Even those who have a hard time seeing or remembering can recall a verse or two, and the refrains, of familiar hymns. 

I have begun taking my “prayer angel” to both homes, and the residents look forward to our time of sharing joys and concerns and placing them in the angel’s hands. The porcelain figure is kneeling, and her hands are open to receive reminders of prayer needs. I have a card for each resident and when we are together I add their comments and concerns to the cards. When I return home, I return the angel to my study. This practice helps me remember the names of residents and their concerns. 

I picture their faces as I pray for them each day. 

For fifteen years I served as director of the Long-term Care Ombudsman Program in Central Missouri. I recruited and trained volunteers who visited nursing homes and we provided advocacy and problem-solving for residents. The work was important and meaningful, but I always felt that spiritual care for residents was lacking, and at long last I have an opportunity to help fill that need. 

For three months, I, along with Deacon Janet Schisser and the Rev. Angela Pigg (DOC), will be providing devotionals and spiritual support for residents at two homes in Columbia while their chaplain is on sabbatical. It is a privilege to sit with these elders who have lived faith-filled lives and are no longer able to attend their churches. They are grateful, and I am richly blessed to be with them!

What does it take to start a nursing home ministry? 
It takes wanting to build a relationship with God’s children that Jesus talks about in Matthew 25: 35-36, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” People in nursing homes often feel all these things, whether literally or figuratively. 

Start this ministry with nothing other than time and a love of people. 
Most of us love to sing whether we do it well or not. This is especially true of older people. It is helpful to have a musician to join you. Songbooks are important to have but many nursing facilities have books to use. A fairly inexpensive source of songbooks is ElderSong Publications. Their website is eldersong.com. 

If your congregation is thinking about beginning a nursing home ministry, please feel free to contact Beth and Nancy. We are very passionate about engaging in this ministry and would love to help you get started. This is a ministry that only gets better the more visits you make and the stronger you build the relationship with the residents. 

Contact Nancy Belcher at nanknitter@gmail.com, and 573-635-1659 and Beth Simpson at andybeth@mchsi.com and 573-239-2875.

Published in Seek, Voices from the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, Sept. 2016

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