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Ministries reach out to people at home

Andrew Lawrence is in a period of adjustment. The 82-year-old retired construction worker recently underwent operations on both knees and can no longer make weekly church services.

He misses the hymns, the sermons, the gossip and, most of all, the fellowship.

"Sometimes I don't feel as close to God," said Lawrence, of Penllyn, Pa., near Philadelphia. "When you get out to church, it warms you and makes you feel good. It keeps the pressure on to do right."

Lawrence's predicament is shared by many who have discovered that because of illness or age they are no longer able to engage fully in congregational life. It also presents a challenge to congregations to find ways to serve members whose faces are no longer among the familiar at Sabbath services.

"The demographics are changing. People are aging, and it's becoming an increasing reality in our time," said the Rev. Michael Rothaar, director of worship for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "In some areas of the country, there is a clear trend of churches focusing more on programs that target seniors, rather than children."

In response, congregations and religious organizations are trying to adapt their ministries to help ease the isolation of the homebound.

Recording services on video and audio tapes for the homebound have become commonplace.

There are also church services available via conference call, person-to-person telephone ministries, and regular mailings of church bulletins and devotional handbooks.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recently proposed that lay members as well as clergy take on the duties of visiting and offering communion to the homebound, said Rothaar.

Religious television and radio programming also continue to provide comfort, as does the occasional visit from clergy, church officials, or lay people.

"If that person senses that God is within them, and not just simply off yonder, so that they can experience God as a creative renewing resource within, they seem to be able to cope better with the limitations," said the Rev. Earl Hackett, president of the College of Chaplains.

Rabbi Robert S. Leib, of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am, has participated in a conference call service to shut-ins offered by the Jewish Children and Family Services. He has invited those participants to his Abington, Pa., synagogue, providing transportation for a Sabbath dinner and service. During the last high holidays, he traveled to several nursing homes, blew the shofar, and conducted brief services.

"They found a great deal of comfort in it." Leib said. "They've become much more detached, cut off and remote from their synagogue family and what it has to offer. . . . We want to be as inclusive as we possibly can."

Bethlehem Baptist Church in Penllyn offers video and audio tapes, has a weekly radio show, delivers meals once a week to shut-ins, mails the church bulletin, and offers a recorded dial-a-prayer service that changes weekly.

The Lawrences take full advantage of everything. They have drawers full of taped services.

"It's very soothing," said Christine Lawrence, 85, who, like her husband, no longer can attend church because of health problems. "I listen at bedtime. When you lay down, it sinks in better."

On June 4, the couple received a visit from Harold Grimes, a deacon with their church. He read from the book of Acts and talked about that day's church sermon.

Together they prayed for the family of an old church friend who has recently died.

"Now, if you want to go to Elton's funeral, just call the church and we'll come pick you up," the deacon said as he got up to leave. After a handshake and a peck on the cheek, he was gone.

Donna Hoch, 42, of Churchville, Pa., stopped attending her church eight years ago when a bout with Lyme disease left her bedridden and in constant pain.

Meditation and contemplative prayer were her resources.

"I found my spirituality grew by leaps and bounds," Hoch said. "(My isolation) forced me to pay attention. And God had my undivided attention for a very long time."

But not everyone is able to find the strength and satisfaction that Hoch found in being alone.

Eucharistic minister Regina Cardano knows that well. She serves communion to 50 residents of the In-Town Retirement Club in south Philadelphia. Cardano, of St. Rita's Roman Catholic Church, continually enlists their prayers for the parish when she makes her weekly visits to the retirement home.

"It strengthens my faith," Cardano said. "I always have someone coming up to me and saying, "I'm not Catholic, but would you pray with me?' They are always looking for that contact, someone to go to God with them for a need that they have."