During the dark ages before DVRs, my wife and I arranged our weekly schedule around a sitcom. It was not easy. Amateur parents, we were learning how to care for our first newborn.
I had a demanding job. My wife ran a start-up business. We had parish and family obligations. Yet somehow, every Thursday at 7pm, sitting on a scratchy second-hand, tan-colored couch, we managed to watch the Simpsons.
One Thursday night in 1993, God struck us with the absurdity of our faithfulness to a television show, and changed our priorities. From then on we would use those 30 minutes for a better purpose.
But what could we do? We had hardly any ministry experience and no special skills. Our parish had no outreach ministry to join. We had limited resources. We thought we had little to offer. All that we had was ourselves and our baby.
Then I remembered. When I was a young boy, once a week for two years, my mother wrestled my four younger siblings and me to an assisted living community. God deposited something that lasted. I learned old ladies in wheelchairs do not run away. And even if they tried, we could outrun them.
A Christian caregiver told my wife and I about a woman named Ruby, and God called us to visit. Institutionalized her whole life, she was a ward of the state. Many people labeled her “slow” because she struggled. To them, mental disability and frailty defined her.
I remember her crying in the white emptiness of an assisted living community hallway, despairing. “I miss my church,” she sobbed. For many years, her lifelong church picked her up each Sunday morning and enabled her to worship. But she became incontinent and soiled the church’s new carpet. The bus stopped coming. For years, nobody came. Never. Still, every Sunday Ruby waited by the door, tears searing her cheeks. God saw Ruby in her distress, and God remembers the brokenhearted.
My wife and I brought our baby each week, and over time Ruby became dear to us. Throughout our friendship, she shared a rare depth of wisdom wrought through eight decades of hardship. Eventually more people from our Dayton, Ohio parish and community heeded God’s call, joined us, and a congregation soon sprouted. Its first member, Ruby, declared joyfully “This is my church,” and before she died she ushered many into heaven. Ruby sparkled in unwavering kindness to everyone, always with a joyful heart and a wry smile. She remembered visitors’ names, prayed aloud for them, and made sure everybody knew about Jesus.
We didn’t know it then, but today we recognize that the need in assisted living communities is both massive and growing. America’s 16,000 assisted living communities contain almost a million people. Shortly, millions more will join them. 4 out of every 5 assisted living community residents did not receive a visitor in the last year. 3 out of 5 will never receive a visitor. Not one.
People in assisted living communities need not remain neglected. In Dayton, Ohio, for example, two parishes in the Diocese of the Central States (REC), Christ the King and Christ our Hope, support St. Lazarus Mission. They inject the energy and enthusiasm of their younger generations into that assisted living community and receive the distilled life lessons and wisdom of the seasoned saints they touch. St. Lazarus Mission’s work is to hold out the hands of Christ to the least, lonely, labeled and lost.
We administer the sacraments. We preach the Word of God. We teach the Scriptures. We comfort the wounded, the sick, and the dying. In this environment, God molds leaders, lay and ordained, and people come to Christ for the first time.
Any parish can adopt an assisted living community. It requires few resources and merely a handful of willing souls. The seeds of a congregation have already been planted in every assisted living community. If the faithful presence of God’s people, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is established now, then we will be prepared to receive many into Christ’s Kingdom in the years to come.
The Rev. Chris Herman, Vicar (St. Lazarus Mission)