One by one the 30 passenger buses pull up to the curb and one by one the passengers disembark; the pale elderly man, a woman in a wheel chair with her head slumped, a bright-eyed man in his sixties with spunk and a lightness to his step, a gal with a smile the size of New Jersey and a broken accent to boot.
Each visitor to this Interfaith Religious Service is greeted by a warm glow that surrounds the volunteers who support the Alzheimer’s Association on the Interfaith Committee. They are lovingly guided to a church where the tile floor has the appearance of a shimmering lake and pews surround the altar welcoming all to the table of the Lord. Searching eyes stare up at a cross exposing a crippled and pained Savior while melodious echoes of the organ beckon to the guests to rest and be comforted.
In a world where loved ones and professionals try desperately, and often times unsuccessfully to make contact with dementia sufferers, a religious setting or tradition makes a spiritual connection. Such was the case for many of those who attended the service at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Huntington Beach this glorious morning.
For those suffering from memory loss, and those of us who have a fondness for the traditional hymns, AMAZING GRACE filled the sanctuary. Truly, “ How sweet the sound” that stirred wonder and contentment among today’s guests. Mary rocked sweetly back and forth to a tune that provided comfort and joy to her failing memory.
As the priest appeared in the aisle, a long, red vestment trailing, the attendees were moved once again by the commanding organ to HOW GREAT THOU ART. In the front row, Robert tapped in time as his loud voice carried on out of tune, “Then sings my soul, my savior God to me!”
The service continued with familiar readings from Romans, Psalms and Matthew. All eyes were on Father Jerome Karcher as he shared a message of faith, promise and love; reminding us that “whosoever shall humble himself as a little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Heads nodded in complete contentment and understanding of a homily fit for this very special, chosen group.
Throughout the worship service Betty would rise whenever asked to do so by the celebrant. Resting on her walker, she would weaken after a time. When prompted to be seated, she would indignantly reply, “ I will stand as I am able until he tells me otherwise!” Yes, Betty was fully present in His house.
As The Lord’s Prayer began, Ruth walked in. Ever so slight, she stood tall and was trembling as she was led to the available space next to me. She looked deep into my soul with her opal eyes, as clear as the full moon on a quiet lake in June. Approvingly, I held her bony hand. We sat, huddled next to each other, sharing a blanket of love from the Lord as LET THERE BE PEACE ON EARTH was led by the organist. And Ruth cried. As I massaged her shoulder and sang, “Let peace begin with me Let this be the moment now” Ruth wept. Her tears streamed onto the song sheet. Her large drops stained my linen shirt with a lasting part of her life given ever so freely, innocently to me. By the time we came to the words, “To take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally” Ruth was singing with me.
When the recessional hymn began and the congregation rose, as they were able, Ruth wrapped her arms around me and became limp. I softly sang into her heart, “And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun… and hold you in the palm of His hand.”
Father Jerome stood at the entrance of the church to greet each visitor, lovingly, one by one. Lunch followed in the fellowship hall. Prepared and presented by gentle volunteers from the parish. Music played the old tunes of the thirties and forties. People wandered about, laughed and lingered forever. Or so it must have seemed.
Charles commented to me that he had hoped we would do this for him again tomorrow. Jerry said that although he has a terrible voice, it was such fun to sing with us yesterday and not have anyone make fun of him. I have never experienced such appreciation and gratitude, than by Judy who kissed and hugged the devil right out of me and said that surely God would bless me for spending time with the old folks. She couldn’t know how richly I had just been blessed by this day.
As the last guest boarded the last bus and drove away, I couldn’t help noticing that Mother Mary had come to each of us in an hour of darkness. Thanks be to God.
Bimonthly, the Alzheimer’s Association of Orange County organizes special programs that provide spiritual support for men and women with dementia. More than a dozen churches and synagogues host worship and prayer services for individuals, families, residents of adult day health care and live-in facilities.