[This begins the last week of writing a reflection each day during Lent (2015) about my pastoral ministry past, from a seminary internship to my retirement.]

Through all the years I spent in Richmond, VA., I had little experience in visiting nursing homes. It wasn’t in my “job description” for the most part. The only memory I have of a pastoral call in such a facility in Richmond was serving Holy Communion after conducting a worship service at the Confederate Home for Women. When I told a frequent visitor in the Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church fellowship (an eccentric woman known as Miss Lilly, quite a story herself) that I had served Communion to a 100 year-old resident of that home, she replied, “What a privilege for you both.” I always thought that was a wonderful comment.

However, my ministry in Vermont led me into a significant role as an ad hoc chaplain and board member of the Greensboro Nursing Home, about six miles from my East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church. Greensboro, VT on Caspian Lake had a small (30 beds?) independent, community-run nursing home, and I almost always had a church member or two living there. At first, I would make the occasional visit, dropping by for conversation and a prayer.

But it didn’t take long to be invited to serve on the Board, and that was quite an education. Issues of healthcare, funding, patient advocacy, and staff relations were always on the agenda, and I found myself sandwiched between the nursing home administration and resident concerns. Fortunately, I wasn’t seen as antagonist to either side, but as ally to both.

The nursing home, being small and community-based, had a pleasant enough atmosphere. I recall no odd odors, nor rumors of abusive treatment. In fact, it had several admirable attributes. For one thing, at that time the Greensboro Nursing Home operated a commercial bakery out of its kitchen. It was a revenue source for the home, as well as providing some good PR for the place. People would come in just looking for cakes, pies, pastries, and other goodies, and having people come in to shop, got them in touch with some residents, or at least gave them a  good impression of the facility. Some of the goodies were on sale in local stores, and the chef/baker was well-respected for his wares.

But aside from the side-business, the nursing home itself had other good qualities. At the door of each room was a framed biographical sketch of the room’s resident(s). With HIPAA privacy laws now, that helpful bio may be a thing of the past, but at the time it was a wonderful way to get to know something about the resident I was about to visit. Seeing that this woman was once a ballet dancer in New York, or that that man was a dairy farmer for sixty years, or that the person in this room was great-great-grandparent to four youngsters — well, there were starting points for conversations and story-telling.

Sally Levy was the volunteer behind those biographies, a master of listening and honoring the stories of residents, as well as what we could call the MJ for the “living room.” Movie Jockey? Sally knew that many of those elderly folks grew up in the golden age of films, and Sally planted a big screen projection TV in the facility’s largest gathering space and showed old movies hour after hour. Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Joan Crawford…and Sally didn’t let those films just glow from the screen; she processed the films with viewers, again drawing out memories, attitudes, politics.

And Sally would read aloud to small circles of residents, or sit at bedside reading poetry or classic novels. (She once shared with me her own unpublished novel, a very impressive work that captured a certain age in her personal New York City experiences and imaginings.)

Besides the pastoral calls I made to members of my own flock, and serving a couple of terms on the Board, I was asked to help with the Thursday afternoon worship services. What started as an ecumenical rotation of pastors and priests, each one responsible for one Thursday a month, eventually became me and the Catholic priest. He’d do Mass once a month, and I’d handle all the other services. The other pastors just didn’t have the time or inclination to share the responsibility. So, almost every Thursday afternoon at 2, I’d lead a modest chapel service for whomever happened to be in the living room. When I arrived, a staff person would rather unceremoniously turn off the TV (that didn’t win the preacher any points) and announce that it was time for “church.” A few folks would be wheeled from their rooms (at the their request, of course), and I would lead prayers, read scripture, and offer a brief reflection or meditation. The first couple of years I was there, an old guy named John would interrupt me about two minutes in, and gruffly holler, “I want to go to bed!” Five more minutes, John… “I wannna go to BED!”

I also led memorial services for residents for whom their nursing home beds were their death beds. Obviously, most residents were unable to attend funerals in local churches, so we held services at the home, sometimes with surviving family members attending. Often, I hadn’t met those families before the services, but they were so respectful and grateful for the thoughtfulness of nursing home staff to have offered an occasion for everyone to celebrate the lives of these old friends.

One particular resident was Ethel Bailey, a member of my congregation who had survived some 30+ years with multiple sclerosis. When I first visited her in the home in which she and her husband had raised their family, Ethel was widowed, wheelchair-bound, but very resourceful. She asked me once to help her locate paperwork of some kind; it was filed in her dishwasher! She washed dishes by hand, but used the wheelchair-level dishwasher as an accessible place to keep files and magazines. She eventually moved to the Craftsbury Community Care Center (about which I have previously written here), and then ultimately to the Greensboro Nursing Home. Ethel became quite the artist there, and one of her works hangs on my wall, reminding me of her friendship.

I remember how Ethel’s room was “decorated” with various notes to staff, complaints and warnings about where things should go/stay in her room, what should NOT be thrown away, or how the content of her dresser should be arranged. Note after note after note. For the most part, the staff was understanding. “Oh, that’s Ethel,” they’d tell me.

Ethel also had an uncanny memory for details of dates and days and numbers in general. She knew everyone’s birthdays, their ages, graduation years, and I swear, she could tell you the day of the week a person had been born.

Long after we had moved from Vermont, Ethel kept up with us by calling us at home, sometimes at odd hours. As her health declined, she was difficult to understand over the phone, but we did the best we could to listen carefully and tolerate her many complaints about the nursing home. It was, as I have said, as good as nursing homes get, but unless Ethel was the CEO, it had many shortcomings as far as she was concerned. We always made it a point to visit her when our travels led back to Vermont,.

This informal nursing home “chaplaincy” was a far cry from my days in youth ministry, but generation after generation, there is a place for compassion, understanding, and acceptance, and I learned so much from these folks. They enriched my pastoral ministry, and I am grateful.

(Please see the following for one more story related to my Greensboro Nursing Home ministry:)

Next…one wedding I turned down.