Drop by the Riviera Room at Bay Vue Nursing & Rehab Center in Bradenton on a Sunday morning, and you’re bound to see God at work.
That’s when Faith UMC holds church services for the facility’s residents and their families. They push dining room tables aside, chairs are lined up, and hymnals are passed around as elderly men and women from all backgrounds—some using walkers and wheelchairs—slowly find their way into the makeshift sanctuary.
There’s a lectern and a volunteer who leads prayers, delivers a message and takes concerns.
“We have an offer; they put in their bingo winnings!” said Pam Hunt, the lay coordinator for the ministry.
She says the 10 a.m. gathering serves as much more than a service.
“They are a church,” said Hunt, who started working with the ministry about five years ago. “They are a congregation. They are connected.”
And the desire to nurture that connection is what keeps Hunt and her fellow volunteers returning to Bay Vue week after week. Hunt, along with Faith UMC Pastor Gary Eldred and his wife, Sherry, and former Faith UMC member Rich Sidley, rotate the Sunday mornings each month.
“Many of these people grew up going to church and just because they’re living somewhere different now doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get to have that church experience,” Hunt said.
Eldred agreed, adding that feeling connected to God is especially important for the elderly, who are often dealing with a change of residence, loneliness and a loss of independence.
“It’s a ministry of encouragement and hopefulness and developing a friendship with God,” he said. “I’m just delighted that Pam, Rich and Sherry are willing to do this. We just see it as a way of blessing people.”
A highlight on Sunday mornings, Hunt said, is the singing.
“We don’t have instruments,” she said. “We sing a cappella. I’m not what I consider to be a singer, so all the songs are in the key of me! And we always close with all the verses of Jesus Loves Me.”
|Rev. Gary Eldred, pastor, Faith UMC, Bradenton|
For the 15 to 30 residents who attend, even those who might not be fully aware, the hymns are a way to reconnect with special memories and much of what they loved about going to church.On one of Eldred’s Sundays, an elderly man in attendance suddenly asked if he could sing a solo for the congregation.
“He was in his early 90s, I think, and it was great!” he said.
As for the sermon, Eldred is partial to the book of Psalms. Hunt likes to focus on God’s promises.
“We try to encourage them to find joy in their lives,” Hunt said. “We do talk about relevant things. I’m not afraid to talk to them about death. We just continually remind them of God’s promises.”
On a recent Sunday, Hunt was reminded of the power of those promises when a man approached her after the service had ended.
“He wheeled himself up to the front, and he said, ‘I’m Catholic, but I really, really enjoyed your message!’” she recalled.
Worshipping at Bay Vue is a high point of Hunt’s week, and she believes she gets just as much out it as the residents.
“What’s funny about it is I don’t see them as aged and infirm,” she said. “We’re all just here for the same reason. It’s the biggest blessing. It just carries me through the day!”
—Kari Barlow is a freelance writer based in Pensacola.