On Tuesday, July 18, 2023, a brush fire in Molalla, Oregon forced the evacuation of Bear Creek Memory Care. The fire was controlled quickly and residents were able to return. Knowing how disruptive that could be to the residents and staff, Vance Miller, Grace Lutheran Church’s newly hired Director of Outreach, called Bear Creek Wednesday morning to ask if the church could do anything to help. “Send someone who can sing,” was the immediate reply. Vance called me. I was at work and couldn’t go that day, but had planned to take the next day off, so our visit was scheduled.
On Thursday, July 20, Vance and I went to Bear Creek. I played my autoharp and sang gospel and old-time songs that might trigger memories for the residents. One resident (whom we will call Roy) was particularly enthusiastic. He sat front and center, joyfully playing the bones (a hand-held percussion instrument) with every song. About halfway through the program, Roy said, “I wish we could have church services here. We need to hear the Word of God.” Vance went to the office and consulted with the people in charge while I continued singing. The answer was an emphatic, “Yes!”
We constructed a simple order of service. On Monday morning, July 31, we — along with four others from Grace — went to conduct the first worship service at Bear Creek. It was well received by the residents, especially Roy who again was front and center, joyfully clicking the bones with closed eyes and uplifted hands on every song.
The worship service has become a Monday morning habit for the crew from Grace and the staff and residents at Bear Creek. Some 20 or more of the 55 residents gather to participate. Staff members often linger to listen when passing through the area as they go about their duties. When worship time is over and we are saying goodbye to residents, we often hear, “Thank you so much for coming. You made my day. You made my week.” Every staff member we see thanks us for coming. Since discovering that “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” is a favorite song of one of the residents, it has become the ‘official’ postlude to the services, and everyone sings along.
“You doing this [worship service] here has more impact than you know,” remarked Activities Director Andrea Begley. “The effects last much longer than just the time you are here. This service, especially the music, helps their memories. For the rest of the day and even through the week, people will talk about things we haven’t heard them talk about before, and memories of going to church. And it helps all of us [staff], too, more than you know. We really appreciate you coming.”
Serving at Bear Creek has had a powerful impact on the Grace members as well. Outreach Director Vance Miller says, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done… seeing the people like that, but it’s also one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
Some other observations from the Grace crew: “We see people who don’t know where they are, but they sing the songs and say every word of the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23. For a moment they are right there.” “Some of the residents remember us from week to week. That is so gratifying.” “They can be confused and upset when we get there, but as soon as the singing starts, they are right there participating, singing the songs and saying the prayers.” “A person will be sitting with a blank stare, looking lost and confused, sometimes even distressed, but as the worship service progresses, you can see a warming, an awakening of something inside, and they will say a few words of the prayer, or even start to sing along. It’s profound and very moving to see.” We all agree that providing worship service at Bear Creek feeds us as much as it does the residents. We feel the importance of it as God’s mission to the staff as much as to the residents.
One resident asked for a Bible. We had just found a box of Gideon Bibles at the church, so we took several to Bear Creek. As we were leaving, a young staff member came and asked if he could give one to a specific resident. Of course! Gladly! Some residents need large print Bibles. Grace Women LWML has decided to make Bear Creek a focus of their mission activities. A first step was to provide five giant print Bibles for the staff to give to those who need them.
On Nov. 6, the residents were particularly engaged in the worship, especially Roy. Recently he told one of our Grace crew, “I don’t know much, but I know how to worship!” He was totally involved in every part of the service that day, but there was something different in his eyes. A few weeks before, I asked him if he was all right because his eyes didn’t have their usual sparkle, and he had missed one week not feeling well. As we were saying goodbye that November day, Roy said, “Thank you so much for coming. You really make my day. I look forward to this all week.” I reminded him that having church at Bear Creek was his idea and we started coming because he asked for it. He didn’t remember asking, but I assured him that we were there because of his request. “God used you to bring us here, the Holy Spirit used you to invite us, ” I told him. He looked proud for just a second, then broke into a big smile, pointed up, and said, “God did it.” We parted saying, “See you next week.”
The next week, Nov. 13, Roy missed church again. We remarked on it to each other. Where’s Roy? He’s always here and is always such a lively bright spot. We all looked forward to being with him. As we were leaving, we asked Andrea where Roy was. She hesitantly and delicately told us that he had died suddenly and unexpectedly. It was a shock to the staff because he was a favorite and had shown no signs of failing. As we were consoling one another with tears and hugs, I shared a quote from Acts 13:36 where Paul says: “For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers…” We all agreed that Roy had served God’s purpose; he brought church to Bear Creek.
Postscript: God has blessed us with another ministry opportunity. “Roy” was such a bright presence at Bear Creek that the staff is having a hard time with his passing. One of the owners has requested that we provide a memorial service for the staff to help them deal with his loss. May God’s Words of love, grace, and promise bring them comfort, peace, and hope.