by Gale Wenk du Pont
Matthew 4:18-22 tells the story of Jesus calling the disciples. He calls ordinary fishermen in the middle of their ordinary lives to follow him; they immediately drop everything and follow. They have no idea what they are being called to do, except that Jesus says he will make them fish for people. But without hesitation, they leave their nets, their boats, their families, and their livelihoods. They risk it all, not knowing where Jesus will lead them. They could have stayed in the boat with what was familiar to them. Instead, they follow and are sent out not alone but together in partnership to become a net that God will cast throughout the world. They will share the good news of Jesus Christ—his love, his mercy, his grace—and gather into the net those who had been forgotten.
The church is at a crossroads. Jesus is calling us, just as he called the disciples, to get out of the boat, move out of our comfort zones, and cast our nets to the marginalized, oppressed, and vulnerable in our communities. Many have experienced trauma at the hands of our churches and have issues with trust. Many are unable to enter our buildings because they are not accessible or cannot attend because they are homebound. Instead of sitting back and waiting for people to come to us, Jesus calls us to move outside of the walls of our church buildings and reach people where they are. We do not have to do it alone but as an intentional partner alongside our neighbors—other churches and faiths as well as service and advocacy organizations—with one common goal: to meet the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of all.
What steps can we take to be in partnership with the community?
Put People First
We need to put people first. Let’s use the worship needs of people living in nursing homes as our case study for this. Six years ago, I was asked by the chaplain at an area nursing home to lead worship at the facility. He shared that, before entering nursing care, most residents had a strong connection to a faith community. However, many were now separated from these communities due to lack of nearby bed availability or to families moving them physically closer to better monitor their care. Few facilities have chaplains who can provide worship and spiritual care. Churches that do come in provide more of an entertainment experience where there is no resident participation. What for me began with “I guess I can try” has turned into a monthly ministry in three facilities.
Worship in nursing homes looks very different as you have to accommodate for loss of hearing, vision, and even ability to hold on to a bulletin. You must work with nursing staff to know whether residents can receive communion because of swallowing difficulties. Residents attending may have varying degrees of cognitive functioning, as many are at different stages of dementia. Music, liturgy, and the message have to be adapted to familiar hymns and story-based scripture readings that they remember from childhood. The message is geared to how God’s word applies to them where they are now and how they can answer God’s call with the gifts they still possess. It is important to include residents in the service wherever possible, as lectors, assisting ministers, leading hymns, or even accompanists. Included is a time of sharing joys and concerns.
The worshiping communities are small, around 15-25 people who know each other well because they eat and have other activities together. They know each other’s struggles and celebrate each other’s victories. Residents often pray for each other during the prayer, share, and care time. Church holidays are celebrated as one would do in church with ashes, palms, the advent wreath, and use of the liturgical colors to remind residents of the current church season. Residents are of different Christian faith traditions so various practices are respected and incorporated. Often, following the service, time is spent with individuals who wish to receive one-on-one prayer time; communion is given bedside to those unable to attend the service. Staff often participate in the service as they are able. The services have become an opportunity to gather, learn, be fed spiritually, share, support, encourage and empower. Small group devotions and bible study are also available. Staff have commented that, for the hours following worship, residents are calmer and experience fewer behavioral problems often seen with dementia.
Worship and spiritual care in nursing homes has been especially important recently because of the trauma residents experienced with the pandemic. For almost eighteen months, visitation even of family restricted to, at most, meeting through a screen or window with no human touch due to protective equipment. Masks continue to be worn so residents do not even see the faces of those caring for them. Many have lost people they cared about both in and out of the facility. So, it is also important to be aware and address that trauma in preaching.
Look closely at the communities where you live and serve. How can you honor the people who live there and address their specific needs?
The second action step is easing the impact of trauma. I have adopted the mantra – “I did not cause the trauma but I will be part of the healing.” In addition to the trauma I described for those living in nursing homes, here are a few other recent examples …
At the height of the pandemic, many Asian Americans in our community experienced hate crimes. The business and faith community joined with Dickinson College, the Penn State Law school, several groups that promote racial justice, and individuals in the community to hold a walk and vigil to raise awareness and support our Asian American siblings, many of whom were students and business owners. Prayer was a part of the program, focusing on our call to love our neighbor, regardless of our faith traditions.
We have also seen hate crimes directed at our Jewish and Catholic siblings. In response, a religious ally group composed of many interfaith partners was formed. This group hosted a prayer walk in a local park where the many faith traditions in our community could share information about their faith in the hope that knowledge would bring about understanding, which in turn would reduce fear, and promote respect.
Share the Burden
The partnership mentioned above highlights the third action step—share the burden. There are many needs in our communities—homelessness, hunger, high rates of recidivism among those released from prison, lack of access to health care—just to name a few. It would be impossible for one group to meet all the needs of their community. It is all about knowing the concerns and then engaging in strategic partnership with others to help those in need.
Our local school district has a large number of students who are on the free or reduced lunch program. These families often do not have funds for school supplies. Several churches and organizations previously offered back-to-school events where they provide supplies for a small number of students. Several years ago, the community joined together—churches, service organizations, businesses, health care systems—to see what would it look like if we joined forces for one event. That collaboration became Fill-the-Bus/Carlisle4Kids. The School District provides a list of required supplies. Many community groups pledge to collect a specific item. We partnered with Walmart one weekend to have volunteers hand out flyers asking shoppers to add needed items to their shopping list. The store put these items on sale, creating displays in front of the store to make items easier for shoppers to find. The owners of the Carlisle Expo Center then donated the space for the distribution. Volunteers from throughout the community served at the registration desk and as greeters, ushers, and supply distributors. One local physical therapy practice educated attendees on the proper way to wear and pack their backpacks. The faith community sponsored a table for prayer and blessing of the backpacks. Local warehouses donated gift bags of personal care items and healthy snacks; service organizations set up tables to share information to meet the needs of those attending. Each year, this event serves over 800 kids.
So where do you start to become an intentional community partner? It begins with assessing the needs in the community, asking God in prayer where you can use your gifts, resources, and assets, and then acting on what He calls you to do. God led me to begin attending meetings of groups that addressed the local needs I had identified, including the Re-entry Coalition, an organization for housing concerns that is building bridges across our many neighborhoods. I also became part of the Carlisle Action Network (CAN), started by the former President of Dickinson College, that brought together about 120 leaders from across the community to address issues and concerns. We had seen an increase in the unhoused around the church I was attending; the church happened to own four apartment buildings, three of which had fallen into disrepair. I mentioned it at the CAN meeting and was connected with the Housing Authority overseeing federal COVID grants. We applied for this grant as well as one from a local foundation and were awarded both. Through connections I had made in these groups, I reached out for volunteers to help with the work to stretch our grant dollars even more. We involved students from Dickinson College, volunteers from the United Way Day of Caring, members of our own church and other churches, and interested community residents. When the work is complete, we will partner with the Housing Authority Coordinated Entry system to rent to low and middle-income individuals and families. This ministry, called Resurrect, has been a true partnership with the community.
I want to end with a quote from Queen Elizabeth. “At the heart of our faith stand not a preoccupation with our own welfare and comfort, but the concepts of service and of sacrifice as shown in the life and teachings of the one who made himself nothing, taking on the very form of a servant.” Jesus’ ministry was about serving others. He calls us to be in relationship with those society considers unworthy and not valued. When the church becomes an intentional partner with the community, we answer that call.
Gale Wenk du Pont is a retired Occupational Therapist who now does volunteer work with organizations whose goals are to protect and empower communities against racism, discrimination, and violence and improve the quality of life for all residents. She received her B.S. in Occupational Therapy from Temple University and a certificate in Occupational Ergonomics, Human Factors Engineering and Job Analysis from the University of Michigan, Department of Industrial Engineering -Center for Ergonomics. She is a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Carlisle and serves as an Assisting Minister, Outreach/Evangelism Liaison, member of the Youth Ministry Outreach and Activity Team, WeCare Immigration Team, and Home Communion Team. Gale leads worship services monthly at Forest Park and Claremont Nursing and Rehabilitation Centers. She is the President of the Carlisle Area Religious Council, co-chair of the MLK Commemoration Committee, member of the LSS Towards Racial Justice Task Force, steering committee for Fill-the-Bus/Carlisle4 Kids, steering committee for Neighbors Helping Neighbors, Chaplain Advisory Committee for the Cumberland County Prison and Claremont Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and member of the Biddle Mission Park Labyrinth Board. She served on the board of Domestic Violence Service of Cumberland and Perry Counties as Resource Development Chair. She has given numerous presentations on domestic violence and workplace violence.