When we discuss the goal of “bridging generations,” it is far too easy to pick out the various aspects of church that highlight one specific generation and point out the exceptional instances of cross-pollination with other generations. It doesn’t come naturally to us to engage with those who are different. This is true of race and culture, and it’s also true of age.
There is no silver bullet that will easily bring generations together, even in the church. But perhaps there are pockets of “generational expertise” from which we collectively may glean some valuable insights and practices. I have been privileged to serve within one of our denomination’s pockets of generational expertise, Heritage Ministries. Founded in 1886, Heritage Ministries has grown from its original campus in Gerry, New York, to six locations in New York state, with additional affiliations across the United States. As a not-for-profit provider of senior care and housing, Heritage is a leader in the industry, employing approximately 1,500 team members and serving over 2,500 individuals annually. With locations in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Washington, Heritage and its affiliates provide rehabilitation and skilled nursing services, memory care, independent living and assisted living. Homestead Stables provides intergenerational equestrian opportunities as well as boarding, training, lessons and a therapeutic riding program. In addition, child care is provided at two campuses, allowing for intergenerational programs.
Heritage Ministries has a fascinating history. Ultimately, the ministry emerged out of the “train-wreck conversion” of Walter Sellew, who later served as a pastor and bishop in the Free Methodist Church. In 1886, the groundwork was laid for an orphanage, which would later be known as The Gerry Homes. The orphanage grew to include an “Old Persons Home.” These ministries were born out of a series of visions and reflected the call of James 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.”
It is amazing that within a short time frame, The Gerry Homes actually endeavored to care for both orphans and widows at the same time, on the same grounds. I often wish we could sit down and learn some of the ingenuity of the saints in those days, so that we could apply it to our times. After some years of “bridging the generations,” changing regulations led to the ministry focusing on care for the elderly. Throughout those early years, 1,848 children were cared for during the operation of The Gerry Homes. Perhaps one of the largest lessons we could learn from Bishop Sellew, and other early leaders, is that providing for the physical and spiritual needs of others does not require an age limit on either end of the spectrum.
What can we learn from the current day practices of Heritage Ministries? As a relatively young, but getting older chaplain, I take a lot of notes. I learn a lot of things from those I seek to serve. As I have lived among and served amid the saints at Heritage Ministries, I’ve learned the value of community and commitment.
Throughout our senior living residences, at all levels, I see residents living in community with one another. What a privilege and blessing it is (Psalm 133:1). Encouragement is deepened and multiplied when someone offers it to their neighbors on a daily basis. Conversations and relationships thrive when they are fostered over time, for the long haul. When life slows down deliberately or due to circumstance, or a combination of both, it becomes easier to listen, care and lovingly remember the life details of those around you. There are small, intentional acts of living in a community in which many of our seniors thrive as shining examples for us to emulate.
Rolling Fields Elder Care Community — a Heritage senior living community located in Conneautville, Pennsylvania — has provided many examples of the thriving community that can occur in the arena of senior care. Chaplain Kathy Petteys shares, “I remember my first reaction to the Rolling Fields community. I thought, ‘This is an amazing community.’ Family and friends were in and out all the time. We had a community music fest where the local community was invited to come during the summer months. Our elders would come out and be a part of the music. Rolling Fields also had a small fair once a year with games and food, and all were invited from our community. During the warmer months, the Amish and Brethren communities would come to sing praise to our Lord and give devotions. One of the Catholic deacons in the area has come for 20 years to give a service every Sunday and serve communion. He has said to me more than once that the elders of Rolling Fields are family to him. There were several other Protestant ministers who would come in regularly to hold a special service or visit. All along I am thinking, ‘This is an amazing community.’”
This sense of community at Rolling Fields was eventually tested in a way no one could imagine. On Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2018, a tornado struck the Rolling Fields community. All nursing home residents were safely evacuated, and through much work, support and prayer, the staff members were able to return to the community within three weeks, with the singular goal of working together to bring their elders “home.” The surrounding Conneautville community provided care and support, both in service and financially, organizing drives for those who had lost their belongings and providing temporary living arrangements for those who were displaced due to the tornado damage. The staff continued to serve. Despite this great challenge, the sense of community that Rolling Fields had built together remained intact.
Recent developments surrounding the COVID-19 epidemic present similar challenges. Outside visitors have been restricted from the community, and group dining and activities have been restricted. A sense of frustration and isolation by both elders and staff threatens to discourage the community there. Chaplain Petteys shares a creative response by which this community was strengthened:
“Our activities department had a grand idea of having a Mother’s Day parade around the building. Family came in cars and pickup trucks with signs of ‘Happy Mother’s Day’ and ‘We love you!’ The elders of Rolling Fields experienced community from their friends and loved ones that day. I was there and witnessed the happiness from the love flowing from that parade around our building. Today, we continue with the COVID-19 pandemic, and I see a group of caregivers who are doing their best to be positive and caring to our elders who are isolated from the family and community outside of our building. As a chaplain, I am doing lots of visiting and sharing the love and messages of Jesus. I miss what we had in the community before COVID-19, but know fully that Jesus is walking with us through this pandemic. We can trust Him even if we do not know what tomorrow may look like.”
From Rolling Fields, we can learn that even severe times of testing can be overcome with Christlike creative expressions of community. Will we learn this resilience from the experience of older generations? Will we continue to surround them with a community that loves at all times (Proverbs 17:17)?
As I take notes and learn from other generations, I see the quality of commitment on display at our Wednesday night services at The Homestead, our senior living community in Gerry, New York. I see people committing to pray for missionaries and ministries. I see people committing to pray for one another and for friends and relatives who don’t yet know Jesus. I see our residents committing to giving to meet the needs of others.
Hearthstone Communities — located in Woodstock, Illinois — provides an incredible example of commitment. Chaplain Randy Waller has served Hearthstone for nearly 16 years. Not only has he poured into the residents there, but he has also provided a way for them to demonstrate faithful stewardship to the world around them. From July 2004 to March 2020, more than $52,000 in offerings have been collected at the Hearthstone Village Sunday night services and distributed to a variety of organizations and ministries. Globally, they have given to Voice of the Martyrs, Kibuye Hope Hospital, the Free Methodist Church’s Haiti Goat Project, and The Birth Connection (another member of the Association of Human Service Ministries of the Free Methodist Church – USA). They have supported local organizations including Public Action to Deliver Shelter, Family Health Partnership Clinic, Woodstock Area Community Ministry, and Helping Hands as well as supporting Hearthstone Early Learning Center and two projects for Hearthstone Manor and Village.
The impact of God’s people who faithfully give is astounding. God only knows how far their gifts have gone. God only knows the individuals who have been blessed and inspired by the committed, regular giving of those who gather for a Sunday night service at Hearthstone Village. Examples like this convict me. Will I give generously, even into the later years of my life? Will I continue to give, even if it’s an unglamorous amount? (Chaplain Waller notes that most Sunday night service contributions are between $1 and $20.) How long will I be a committed giver to the work of God’s kingdom? I am inspired by the commitment I learn from the older generations.
As stated earlier, there is no silver bullet that will simply allow the church to permanently bridge the generations, yet we have many different avenues and opportunities to learn from one another. I am humbled at the legacy of godly men and women who have been a part of the Heritage Ministries community in some form or another. I am aware of the rich significance that occurs when we live in a community with one another, and I am humbled at the impact of the faithful commitment that is demonstrated throughout a lifetime. I prayerfully hope that I, and others of my generation, may live a life worthy of the things I have learned and received in serving the older generations at Heritage Ministries.
Larry Petry serves as the senior chaplain of Heritage Ministries.
Melissa Anderson serves as the marketing manager of Heritage Ministries.3