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by Jim Killam | 5-minute read

 

A multigenerational church like First Free Rockford faces a particular opportunity during COVID-19: caring for our elderly and most vulnerable.

Chuck Rife, Pastor of Caring Ministries, keeps a list of more than 100 people who receive visits in their homes, long-term care centers or hospital rooms. Normally, those visits come in person from Chuck and his wife, Ruth, the deaconesses, and a small group of guys who visit elderly men. During the stay-at-home order, visits have been limited to phone calls and letters.

As with the rest of the population, some people are struggling while others are doing OK.

“You get all kinds of responses,” Chuck says. “One lady (in a nursing home) said, ‘I feel like an animal in a cage.’ The room is just so small. It becomes very claustrophobic. But then another lady I talked to said, ‘I love it. I can finish writing my book that I’ve been working on for 25 years.’ She’s in her 90s.”

Pastor Chuck and wife Ruth on their front porch during stay-home order.

“The biggest thing I hear,” he adds, “is the lack of social activity — especially not eating together. Eating alone in their rooms. That’s very difficult for them, to be cut off from family and friends. They have phones, but they want to meet with people, they want to see and talk with people in person.”

Many of the names on Chuck’s visitation list (also managed by Sasha Pogwizd, Senior Adults and Caring Ministries Facilitator) show up periodically on the Thursday email prayer list. Before the pandemic, they also were printed in the Classic Worship service programs on Sundays.

“Sometimes when the church prays, they don’t know those people. They are just names,” Chuck says. “But we know all those people. They are more than names to us. We know their needs, we know their concerns, we know their feelings, and we know the things that are going on with them, because we visit them. And the deaconesses and men visitors are the same way.”

 

Deaconesses modify their approach

The deaconesses are about 20 women from First Free, approved by the Elder Board to do caring ministry. Most (but not all) are retired. Before COVID-19, it worked like this: On the second Tuesday of each month, the deaconesses met at church. They reviewed a list, supplied by Pastor Chuck, of women needing regular visits. Most on the list live in retirement centers or nursing homes. Some still live at home.

Then, in ten teams of two women each, the deaconesses would head out for the afternoon to do four or five visits.

Stock photo.

Now, the deaconesses are doing their visits by phone, and even more frequently. Each of the 42 women on their list receives a call once a week.

We’re just trying to be a friendly voice on the phone,” says Luaine Oleson, the deaconesses’ co-chair. “The longer this goes on, the more willing they are to have a longer conversation. I think they are getting more familiar with us.”

Sylvia Carter and her husband, Doug, joined First Free in 1981. They were struck by the number of older church members who were warm and friendly to them. It’s a big reason Sylvia serves as a deaconess today.

“I think God gives you a heart for older people,” she says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to serve, and to hear their stories about their faith and all the things in life they have gone through. They have been so faithful in ministry at our church over the years. It’s a nice way to pay them back and be of service to them. To show them God’s love and help them in any way that we can.”

Sylvia’s partner for visiting, Hanna Lavold, is currently the longest-serving deaconess. She retired from teaching in 1998 and became a deaconess the next year. One of the things she enjoys most about the role is the centrality of prayer.

“So many times when I pray for them, they will say, ‘Can I pray for you?’ We get it right back, double and triple,” Hanna says.

Prayer requests from the people they’re visiting get emailed to deaconess Jenny Love, who compiles them and sends them to the whole team so they can pray (for them) all month.

That commitment to prayer gets noticed, A couple of months ago, someone contacted Luaine with a prayer need. “I have this request,” the woman said, “and I know you ladies are the ones who will pray for me.”

That meant a lot to Luaine, for the deaconesses to be recognized as a close-knit group that prays.

 

Low-tech greetings

Younger members of our church family can serve our shut-ins by thinking low-tech, Chuck says.

“Most of the people we visit are above 80, so very few are into technology. The majority of the people we visit don’t even have email.”

If you know someone, call them occasionally, Chuck advises. Ask how they’re doing and simply enjoy a conversation with them. Many elderly people especially enjoy talking about their past. Mailing a card or note also means a lot, and is the best route for encouraging someone you don’t know as well.

“Sometimes they feel disenfranchised, like everybody has forgotten them,” Chuck says. He always prays with each person and leaves them with a Scripture passage or two — “to remind them that God is watching over them and cares for them.”

Luaine adds: “These are all things that fall into the category of go, tell and show the love of Christ. We are going into the ladies’ homes — or right now we are calling them — telling them about Christ and praying for them and showing our love for them.”

A multifaceted ministry

In a typical year, First Free’s deaconesses do monthly home visits (currently by phone) with elderly women, and also much more. They also:

  • Handle funeral receptions at church and at Fairhaven — especially if the family does not have ties with an adult community or other groups at First Free.
  • Visit women who are hospitalized; each receives a rose.
  • Send cards to women not available for a visit.
  • Send sympathy cards to a family after someone from the church dies.
  • Take new widows to lunch.
  • Host an annual birthday luncheon celebrating all women age 80 and above.

The deaconesses

  • Sylvia Carter
  • Janet Chapman
  • Joyce Conrad
  • Sharon Conrad
  • Lynn Erickson
  • Cindy Hall
  • Dottie Helman
  • Mary Hitchcock
  • Nancy Hulme
  • Faye Johnson
  • Hanna Lavold (secretary)
  • Jenny Love
  • Audrey Nelson
  • Carolyn Norquist
  • Luaine Oleson (co-chair)
  • Melanie Purviance (co-chair)
  • Ellen Selin (treasurer)
  • Judy Staples
  • Barb Swanson
  • Linda Watts

Substitutes

  • Faye Larson
  • Kay Wernberg

Men visitors

  • Dennis Anderson
  • Ken Pogwizd
  • Al Wagner
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