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No stopping these PC(USA) seniors

Retirees create a vibrant church

by Mike Givler | Presbyterians Today

Kirk West’s Sunday greeters, Margo Gerber (seated) and John Hearsma, welcome friends to worship. They are part of a thriving new ministry in their assisted living facility. (Photo courtesy of Kirk West)

There’s a worshiping community near Detroit where the average age is around 85, with many who attend pushing 90 and then some. It sounds like a congregation, like many others across the country, that is struggling and will likely fold in a few years, right? Wrong. This church body is bustling and growing steadily with no hint of slowing down.

Kirk West is a congregation at Fox Run Village, a large retirement community located in Novi, Michigan. For the past four-plus years, 40 or more Fox Run residents have been filing into a conference room on Sunday mornings to watch a livestream on a big screen from Kirk in the Hills, a 1,600-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation located 12 miles from Fox Run in Bloomfield Hills.

Residents use the same bulletin as Kirk in the Hills and sing with enthusiasm, read responsively and share in the prayers. It’s a marriage embraced by the traditional mother church — Kirk in the Hills — that effectively serves the residents at Fox Run.

“Our purpose is to show the love of Jesus Christ and to develop our community here,” said Joan Hanpeter, a 30-year member at Kirk in the Hills who is also a resident at Fox Run. “I think the key to our success and vitality is the fact that we have a team that supports Kirk West and makes worship happen every week.” Among those supporters is a nine-person worship team, of which only two members are not in their 90s.

“Sometimes people think old people should be cared for and pitied. At Kirk West, the ministry team thinks old people can do many things, just differently. Older people may have physical limitations and sometimes cognitive limitations, but they still can be effective disciples,” said Hanpeter.

In addition to worship planners, Kirk West was blessed when a longtime Presbyterian and former Stephen minister moved into the area to be closer to her daughter. Stephen Ministries is a national program that has been training lay leaders in caring for congregations since 1975.

“She has years of experience as a Stephen minister and now serves as Kirk West’s care coordinator, keeping in touch with those who are ill or grieving,” said Hanpeter, adding that keeping residents well-informed is a challenge, especially when many do not use a computer. To overcome this challenge, Kirk West developed a member list. It is used to distribute a one-page newsletter every two weeks that goes into Fox Run residents’ individual mailboxes or “cubbies.” A weekly email also goes out to 79 names every Friday with a reminder about worship on Sunday.

A snowy day solution

It wasn’t the pandemic that led Fox Run residents to begin livestreaming Kirk in the Hills’ worship service. Rather, it was a wintry Sunday morning in 2018 that got the seniors plugged in. That morning, when the weather proved too treacherous for folks to venture out to the various church services they normally attend, Hanpeter found two Fox Run residents with good technical skills to hook up a laptop to a large projection screen so that the Kirk in the Hills livestreamed service could be shown.

Kirk West partners with Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church, where ministers will participate in the services at the assisted living facility. Jack Beggs, left, and Jerry Scheel serve as Kirk West’s “tech gurus.” (Photo courtesy of Kirk West)

“It was a cold, snowy February day,” Hanpeter recalled. “A couple of us said the church is going to start livestreaming, and it’s a terrible day on the roads. Let’s get together and see if we can watch this in one of the classrooms at Fox Run. We did, and it worked, so we thought we’d do it again. I did not think at the beginning that we would do this regularly. I thought we would just do it for bad weather.”

At first, only four people took in that livestreamed service. But as word spread about this opportunity, residents began turning out, and Kirk West was born. Fox Run has an in-house TV channel. Every Sunday, a Kirk in the Hills worship service is also shown on this channel.

Hanpeter estimates that a dozen or more Fox Run residents are members of Kirk in the Hills. While many residents who worship at Kirk West are Presbyterian, there are residents with different denominational affiliations who also attend. “We’re predominantly Presbyterian but not exclusively. In good weather, some of them may go back to their home churches. We encourage them to continue to support their home church,” said Hanpeter.

Obstacles and opportunities

During the pandemic, when Fox Run was under a lockdown for an extended time, the Kirk West congregation could not meet in person. There was also a time when the room where Kirk West meets was undergoing a renovation, which caused the congregation to have to split into two groups to worship for several months. These obstacles only strengthened Kirk West.

“Adversity binds people together,” Hanpeter said. “Even though during the pandemic when we were separated and isolated, had to wear masks and were not able to eat together, we overcame those difficulties because we were able to keep in contact. We kept members informed and, even though we were just starting, we came out of that time as a stronger group.”

The Kirk West service has all the regular elements associated with it, from the singing of hymns to a responsive reading. One difference is that offerings are not taken at Kirk West.

“We decided early on that we didn’t want financial giving to be a barrier to anybody coming,” Hanpeter said. “We knew many residents continue to financially support their home church. We do have offering envelopes sitting on a side table every Sunday. Often residents will pick up an envelope and contribute.”

 

Once a year, though, when Kirk in the Hills observes Stewardship Sunday, Hanpeter says Kirk West will call attention to the opportunity to give “because obviously it’s highlighted in the church service, and they’re going to hear it.”

The Kirk West service has all the regular elements associated with it, from the singing of hymns to a responsive reading. (Photo courtesy of Kirk West)

“We will say this is the one occasion where we are asking you to support the church,” she said, adding that the members of Kirk West are generous. “They know it costs the church money to do this (livestream the service), and they have been very supportive. They have also been quite generous in supporting mission giving like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.”

Experiencing church

As congregations enter a new era of hybrid worship, navigating the many questions of how to assimilate those worshiping online and in person, Kirk West has never found it that difficult to figure out. During the Sunday livestreamed service, a Kirk in the Hills pastor makes a point to acknowledge and welcome the Kirk West congregation and others who are watching from a distance.

“Some Kirk West members want to see Kirk in the Hills in person, so they drive to the church for a Sunday service,” Hanpeter said. “Because the livestreaming is so good, they usually find that they can see and hear better up close in the livestreaming service than they can if they are actually in the sanctuary.”

Coffee hour at Kirk West is offered once a month before the service, allowing residents another opportunity to connect over cookies and a warm beverage. On occasion, Kirk West will reserve Fox Run’s private dining room for a dinner of 16 members. This is a chance to get better acquainted and build a stronger fellowship.

Jasmine Smart, a parish associate at Kirk in the Hills, is the designated pastor for Kirk West. She has another nearly full-time job and is the current moderator of the Presbytery of Detroit, but she makes time to attend worship occasionally at Kirk West and is available for pastoral care.

“They’re an encouragement and an inspiration for the whole community, especially during the pandemic when we all had to imagine what it meant to worship at home and to make our home lives a part of our faith,” Smart said. “They are able to worship at home every week with each other and take care of their neighbors, get to know their neighbors and keep in one another’s lives when things are going poorly.”

When communion is celebrated on the first Sunday of the month, Smart is usually the pastor who attends to facilitate it. Smart was also part of something new at the end of the summer at Fox Run: a baptism. This was the culmination of a new member class that Smart held for the grandchild of a Fox Run resident who is not a member at Kirk in the Hills but attends Kirk West and thus falls under the church’s umbrella.

“She is there if we need her,” Hanpeter said of Smart. “If someone is in the hospital, I’ll send her a text message, and she will call to check in. She’s our go-to pastor.”

Smart knows keeping Kirk West active at Fox Run is key. She was the host of a program called Kirk Chats, which consisted of interviews with Fox Run residents for a show that aired on the retirement community’s TV channel.

Another way Kirk West keeps its worshipers engaged during the week is through small group gatherings. One such group meets weekly over dinner to discuss the sermon they heard on Sunday.

Once a month, Kirk West provides an adult education class for Fox Run residents. Outside speakers talk about various topics ranging from human trafficking to Judaism. Another monthly outreach at Kirk West is its flower ministry. The ministry team purchases bud vases of flowers and encourages worshipers to take a vase to someone who is lonely, ill or just needs a bit of cheer.

“That’s the kind of thing that makes us a community,” Hanpeter said.

Mission oriented

Serving others is important to members of Kirk West as an expression of their Christian faith. Even with limited physical abilities, mission activities are a focal point. Drives for food, clothing and paper bags were successful at the start of the pandemic and continue to this day. Residents have helped six local nonprofits that serve various needs, including the homeless, abused women, veterans in VA hospitals and the hungry coming to food pantries.

“They do encourage us in their mission outreach. A lot of times they raise a good chunk of money for certain causes, and that’s inspiration for the rest of us to be as generous as they are,” said Smart.

Because of its success, Kirk West is being considered to become part of the PC(USA)’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities. Clearly Kirk West is thriving through its Sunday morning livestreamed broadcasts and weekly outreaches, something no one expected more than four years ago.

“Seeing this grow, being a part of a new church development in a way, has been extremely satisfying,” Hanpeter said. “This is possible because we have a team working together. It isn’t one person. It takes the team to do this. And we haven’t been constrained by people thinking we have to do it a traditional way or this is the way we’ve always done it. Despite our ages, we’re very willing to think of something new. We have overcome a lot of obstacles.”

And it could not have been done without a little help from above.

“I feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in so many ways in things that we do,” said Hanpeter. “So many times, things have happened that the only way to explain it is the hand of God is working here. It’s brought us together. We want to encourage other senior living communities to worship together.”

Mike Givler is the communications coordinator for the Synod of the Trinity. He lives in East Petersburg, Pennsylvania.


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