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Roxane B. Salonen, Published April 26 2013

The wisdom people: Living out faith in the elder years of life

FARGO - Several times a week, Sister Mary Ann Schmitz shows up at Villa Maria in Fargo to visit, share smiles and glean nuggets of insight.

She’s dubbed the residents of the long-term care facility and other elders among us “the wisdom people,” according to Deacon Jim Eggl, chaplain.

“They’ve been through the School of Hard Knocks and they know what works and what doesn’t,” Eggl said. “They also know where they draw their strength from – their faith.”

Wisdom to share

Up the road a ways at Bethany Retirement Living, Jim Henderson sits in a chair near the window of his apartment, a devotional booklet on the floor nearby and crucifix hanging on the wall above.

As one of “the wisdom people,” he has plenty of stories to tell.

Growing up in the small town of Sykeston, N.D., Henderson, 89, had his belief in God sealed as a 21-year-old soldier during World War II.

He and his comrades were in Germany walking up the street of a small town they’d planned to attack. In a nearby corner, a camouflaged canon lay in wait.

“We were moving up the street in single file when they fired a round at us,” Henderson said. “The guy in front of me and the two guys behind me and the guy right across the street were all killed, and I didn’t have a scratch.”

A couple days later, Henderson was leading another attack when his brigade ran into an elite German squad with overwhelming firepower.

“Word was passed up that we should fall back and regroup,” Henderson said. But he didn’t get the message in time and was cut off from the rest.

“When the firing started, I stepped into an entryway of a home,” he said. “I knew that if I turned and ran I was going to get shot in the back, and if I stayed they were going to take me prisoner.”

Just then, a door behind him opened, and “a little old German woman” who looked a lot like his grandmother, he said, led him up a flight of stairs and into a private room, where he waited out the fighting.

“She risked her life to save mine,” he said, wondering, “Why was she there? Why was I there? Someone was looking after me.”

He has no doubt it was God. “He’s looked after me many times and answered my prayers,” Henderson said. “Sometimes it’s not the way I’ve liked, but I’m going to say he knew better than I did.”

A richness to offer

The Rev. Phil Larson, chaplain at Bethany, said he never tires of learning about life and faith from the residents.

“There’s a real richness to who they are, what they know and what they share,” he said.

When Larson first arrived on the scene 14 years ago, one of the residents, 101 years old at the time, would visit him every morning. “I could hear his cane tapping on the floor. He’d turn into my office and tell me the same story every day.”

The story was a memory of how poorly the older people in his hometown had been treated, almost as if invisible. Larson uses it to remind himself and others not to overlook the treasures in their midst.

Eggl has heard plenty of stories during his four years at Villa Maria, too.

“A lot of them really love to talk about the good old days, like the Great Depression when they didn’t know if they were going to have food on the table from one day to the next,” he said. “I think it’s good for those of us who haven’t lived through those times to learn from them how to survive.”

Larson said that though he’s all for the emphasis on youth ministry many churches advocate, he’s also become passionate about ministering to our aging population.

Yearning for faith

In leading weekly services in the on-site chapel, Larson has been moved by the deep desire for God he’s seen. For many residents, showing up at chapel can be a major undertaking, especially when wheelchairs, walkers and physical discomfort – not to mention a dependency on others.

But he draws on the Beatitudes of Scripture, particularly, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

“I think there’s a craving for that satisfaction,” he said. “It’s like we’re always fed but we’re never quite full, and so we keep coming. They keep coming and I marvel at that.”

Some warned him when he took the job that it could become depressing. Instead, Larson said, he’s witnessed a vibrant desire for life and living out joys, whether through playing games, doing artwork or visiting friends.

“Living out the gift of life is a great example of stewardship of what God gives us,” he said. “And it teaches me something. I’ve got mobility, decent health, daily bread, so what am I sitting around for?”

Sometimes, unfinished business comes into play.

Larson said a resident in her 80s used to attend chapel regularly except when communion was being distributed. One day, she shared privately that she’d gotten pregnant as a teenager and ever since had felt unworthy. Larson talked with her about the mercy of God, and after that, she began coming to all the services.

“You just never know what a person might be carrying or living with,” he said. “I’m just so glad for her sake that she could, I hope, let that burden go.”

Some, he said, have been exposed to the Gospel all their lives, yet at this point, fervently seek affirmation of its truth. “I find people have a real deep hunger to hear it again and again and again.”

Leading services on Bethany’s memory-care floors has provided additional insight on the steadfastness of the spirit.

“Those hymns, those prayers, it’s amazing how the spirit is really at work,” Larson said, adding that even when memory fails, “the Gospel gets through. That’s what I see.”

Once a resident with Alzheimer’s spoke up and requested praying together for the people of Japan who’d just experienced a natural disaster – a move that convinced Larson again of the spirit’s resolve.

“When I have services on the memory-care unit, I don’t have any expectation except that God is going to be at work,” he said.

Readers can reach contributor Roxane B. Salonen at roxanebsalonen@gmail.com