Leaving in Christ’s Peace
LCMS pastors and deaconesses serve people in their golden years, pointing them to Jesus Christ and His promises for them.
This was not the end for a saint nearing his death. He lay in bed in his darkened room with sunlight streaming through the blinds. A wooden cross hung on the wall. He used to love sharing war stories with guests in his home at Lutheran Haven in Oviedo, Fla., a senior community adjacent to St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, where he heard the Word and regularly received the Sacrament. Now, as he rested, he was not alone. Deaconess Emily McLean brushed his head with her hand. The Rev. John Elliott leaned in closer with his Pastoral Care Companion and read the rite of the Commendation of the Dying.
“The Lord is with you,” said Elliott. “He will never forsake you and never abandon you. You have the peace of Jesus Christ.”
In Oviedo, Fla.
Lutheran Haven, a Recognized Service Organization (RSO) of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), sits next door to St. Luke’s in the suburban community of Oviedo. St. Luke’s is one of the Synod’s largest congregations, with multiple worship services — including one held on Sundays at Lutheran Haven. The lush Florida landscape hides the view between the church and senior care community — there’s also a school wedged between the two — but a short golf cart ride connects them together.
“Specialized spiritual care here at Lutheran Haven looks a lot like it does in most every other place,” Elliott said. “It all flows from the most important thing that we do here, which is worship. It’s where we come together around Word and Sacrament. And from there, everything flows not only from the work that Deaconess McLean and I do here, but [it] also flows out to God’s people as they serve each other, neighbor to neighbor.”
Elliott and McLean are called to St. Luke’s and assigned to Lutheran Haven to provide spiritual care to the residents of the community as an extension of the congregation. They spend their days visiting and praying with residents. The proximity to the congregation is a blessing. While Elliott is fully involved in senior ministry, McLean weaves through intergenerational ministry, bringing in youth and teachers from the school to volunteer and interact with residents. Volunteers stream back and forth from the congregation, as do elders and altar guild members assisting with the Sunday service at Lutheran Haven. When church workers take vacation, pastors from the congregation fill the gap. Residents are never far from their church family.
“I would add,” McLean said, “that one of the nice things about doing women’s ministry is there are a lot of things the women here will talk to me about that they’re not comfortable talking to a man or pastor about. And then if there’s something that should be brought to the pastor’s attention, we can work on that and slowly get to where they’re comfortable.”
On a Friday in July, Elliott and McLean started their day with Richard, a retired nuclear scientist, then caught up with Bernice, 99, and her 104-year-old sister, Lucile. Many residents are members of St. Luke’s, and the two take great care not to step on the toes of the pastors who care for residents who aren’t members of the church. After a few more visits, Elliott and McLean ate lunch in the community’s restaurant and made a few tableside stops to greet residents.
McLean said that in a senior community, the residents “think more and more about their past regrets. And it’s really special to be able to come in and remind them that their sins are forgiven, they are a loved child of God, and nothing can separate them from God.”
Some of the conversations that happen at Lutheran Haven, added Elliott, “are a battle with Satan … that drives home the difference between faith and no faith. When you bring in God’s Word and point folks to their faith and the Lord’s promises — for example, that you’re in the palm of His hand — people take a breath and experience God’s peace. When we’re younger, we are focused on living life and doing this experience and that experience. Now when we’re older, we come to the point where we can do less and less, and [we] see, ‘This is what is left to me.’ What does that mean in Christ? What it means is that nothing has changed. You have a beautiful life awaiting you. You have a promised resurrection and life, face to face with the Lord, awaiting you. So, it’s a very real battle. And it’s never become more real to me [than] when I started serving here. It’s a pleasure to, as Luther might say, poke [Satan] in the eye and tell him, ‘You’re done here, buddy.’”
The following Sunday, the saints gathered for worship and greeted a visiting family in Lutheran Haven’s makeshift chapel — renovations are ongoing — as the residents received God’s gifts in the Divine Service. Elliott and an elder walked the room and distributed the Sacrament. There is no communion rail, and no one stands — it’s too hard for some to get back up.
“Leave this place in peace,” said Elliott during the benediction. “For in Christ that is what you have.”
And in Christ, a saint was buried several days later.
“Specialized care finds its fulfillment in the Divine Service,” said the Rev. Brian Heller, manager of LCMS Specialized Spiritual Care Ministry. “It is such a blessing to have church workers who faithfully bring those entrusted to them to Word and Sacrament ministry. However, there are many circumstances in which church workers serve those who are not Lutheran and may not even be Christian. In these cases, church workers bring the joy of the Gospel to these starved souls.”
In Cabot, Pa.
Deaconess Pamela Voorman loves to hug. In May, she visited with Lois, a resident of Concordia at Rebecca Residence, Allison Park, Pa., a personal care home that is part of Concordia Lutheran Ministries (CLM), an RSO of the LCMS that is based in Cabot, Pa. It’s a part of her daily visitation work as a deaconess. As the visit came to its end, Voorman stood, leaned down to Lois and warmly embraced her. Tears streamed from Lois’ eyes as she spoke of her husband’s death several years ago. Later, Voorman explained that loving and gentle touch is an important part of ministry with older adults who often yearn for such contact.
Voorman shares the work with her husband, the Rev. Duane Voorman Jr. They are both called to CLM, a network of senior communities providing many levels of care — from independent living to skilled nursing and hospice care. They are part of a team of seven called pastors and three called deaconesses at CLM that provide regular chaplaincy care to the residents of 20 buildings in the Pittsburgh area through visitations, Bible study and worship.
With 28 member congregations, CLM is one of the largest nonprofit senior care providers in the country, serving around 50,000 people per year. It is also part of the larger church that cares for God’s people. The chaplaincy care from CLM is an extension of Christ’s love.
Many of Concordia Lutheran Ministries’ residents are not LCMS church members, and Deaconess Voorman said there is a big misunderstanding when it comes to the aged. “It’s wrong to assume if they’re old, they’ve already heard the Gospel. And what I’ve learned is that this age group is a huge mission field, because so many of them haven’t received the Gospel. … There’s such a hunger. People respond as if they’ve never heard it before.” It’s a ripe mission field.
For residents such as William and Lois Quinn, who reside in the independent living community of Highpointe and can’t get to their LCMS congregation, Pastor Voorman serves as their chaplain, bringing them the Sacrament and preaching the Word to them in worship. “It’s very comforting,” Lois said about having a chaplaincy pastor.
“The idea behind our apartment buildings is that people are independent, and they belong to their own churches and we offer a chapel worship on Wednesdays [when] we all come together. … We want people to belong to their own church and have Communion there,” Pastor Voorman said.
As the sun set over the hilly landscape outside of Pittsburgh, residents gathered for a late afternoon worship service. Pastor Voorman preached in the chapel adorned with stained glass depicting the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Prodigal Son. Deaconess Voorman greeted — and hugged — residents.
“And now,” said Pastor Voorman, ending his sermon, “may the peace of God keep our hearts, our minds, our lives always in Christ Jesus, our blessed Lord and Savior. Amen.”
The next morning, Deaconess Heather Wathall arrived at Concordia at Villa St. Joseph in nearby Baden, Pa. It’s one of the facilities that CLM has acquired from other Christian organizations; this location shares space with a Roman Catholic convent. During her visit, Wathall held Bible studies on Psalm 23 for residents in two different sites on the campus. She wants the residents to know they are never forgotten by their Good Shepherd.
“When folks are aging, when folks are unable to take care of themselves, the Law is in their face,” Wathall says. “So many of them think they know the Gospel, [yet] they can still be surprised by it. And there’s so much joy there … showing them how God has come alongside them, shepherded them and shown them that He’s there for them, to care for them, to make them lie down in green pastures and receive the gifts of Christ.”
Before leaving, Wathall changed the paraments on the Villa St. Joseph chapel altar. A hand-carved wooden baptismal font stands under a crucifix, a reminder of and ready for a Baptism at any age.
At Concordia of Cranberry in Mars, Pa., not too far from Baden, the Rev. Roger Nuerge visited with another saint in Christ.
“We know we can count on You each and every day. We’re going to count on You tomorrow too,” Nuerge prayed with 105-year-old Paul Coleman. “You promise never to leave us or forsake us. You promise that there is forgiveness in Your shed blood for all of us, and You promise a life that’s everlasting through the power of the resurrection of Your Son, Jesus. So hear our prayer for Paul today and every day as we commend him — body, soul and spirit — into Your hands.”
Pray with Us
“In you, O Lord, do [we] take refuge” (Psalm 71:1), for You alone protect and guide us throughout our days. You do not cast us off in our old age, but You strengthen and guide us all our days. Continue, we pray, to send Your servants to proclaim Your Word to Your people of every age, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
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Erik M. Lunsford
Managing photojournalist for LCMS Communications.