I had a good experience in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. My wife, Michelle, our daughter, Rachel (21 months old), and I went there to visit my grandma, Thora, who is young for her 92 years. Last year Thora moved into a retirement community in “Fergus,” as she and other locals call it. She lives in an apartment in the portion of the facility inhabited by seniors who are in pretty good shape and can mostly, or entirely, take care of themselves. Thora has lived in the area for 28 years and it seemed she easily knew half the people in town already and had no trouble fitting in. A couple of times during our visit she expressed frustration about not being able to remember the name of someone we ran into. We told her “It’s alright, people understand that gets harder when you’re 92.”
Across the street from Thora’s building is the nursing home and hospice portion of the facility (the very same facility where, nine years earlier, her husband of more than 50 years, Waldemar, spent his final days). It includes a surprisingly large chapel where Thora and many others (mostly from the nursing home side of the street) frequently attend Sunday morning worship services. We asked Thora if she’d like us to bring her to the nearby Lutheran church where she’s a member, but she preferred to give us a taste of what her life is like there at the senior home including Sunday morning worship. I’m glad she did.
She warned us in advance, “Some of the people just sleep slumped over in their wheel chairs,” and briefly imitated their posture. Seeing her do so made me laugh a little in spite of the not-at-all funny reality that she was re-enacting. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but Thora has a light, unassuming way about her that always makes you glad to be around her. She is a powerful, overtly good presence—even when she briefly mistakes you for your cousin. Thora has always called me “Buster.” I do not know why, but for me that is part of her charm. She seldom mistook me for a cousin prior to age 85.
There was a full house for the worship service that Sunday morning. The few able-bodied accompanied the many who were wheeled to the entrance of the chapel by a facility employee, lined up, and then wheeled farther in by the pastor who presided over the service. He moved deliberately, never rushed. He knew most everyone by name, and greeted everyone with sincere appreciation and respect prior to helping each into the chapel and parking his or her chair.
As I watched, I imagined him doing this on 100 prior Sundays, and on the next 100 Sundays to come. I wondered, quite cynically I regret, if his mother or father was among those whom he wheeled in; if his apparent dedication, patience, and kindness were in some way self-serving or insincere done out of obligation.
What followed left me with no doubts and ashamed of my cynicism. The pastor showed us our chairs which had to be collected and assembled from adjacent areas because default seating was for wheel chairs. Within seconds our daughter Rachel would not sit. As the pastor went to wheel others to their places and the piano played traditional Lutheran hymns, Rachel went to the center of the room— it is a circular chapel. That’s where she ran… and jumped… and danced. That’s where she laid down and put both hands in the air, then on her face, and then dropped them to the ground and rolled over, and rolled over again. That’s where she stood, and tumbled, and twirled, and laid down, then raised her legs in the air and suddenly flopped them to the ground again and then stood up. Bending to the ground to touch it, she turned half way around and dropped to her bottom, and paused, only briefly, to look around and find an entire room of people, average age of 88, watching with baited breath to see what she would do next. Watching to see her do without thought what they could never again hope to do: to move effortlessly, to hear music and without thinking, move to its rhythm. To live without care or thought beyond the next moment. Being not yet two she had no idea of her impact.
As Rachel made her first moves we were uneasy. A toddler dancing at the center of a Lutheran service… Thora’s husband Waldemar had been a Lutheran pastor… what would people think? My bride and I both had thoughts of snatching her up and requiring her to sit like a proper little lady. But as the patient Pastor continued to wheel in his infirm sheep, he assured us: “Let her go… it’s good… let her do what she’s doing….” His words, multiple smiles, and re-affirming nods helped us realize that her presence had power. That presence was affirmed when, in the brief silence between the end of one hymn and the start of another, Rachel’s clear “Amen” was heard by all those who were still blessed with that ability. It was a matter-of-fact “Amen,” like that of a child who is anxious to eat her dinner. It was NOT an enthusiastic “Amen!” like someone who has just been touched by the Holy Spirit. But, nonetheless, its humor was not lost on those who heard it.
The week’s gospel was the only formal reading, and the message was a simple, but thoughtful one, about God’s grace. The pastor closed the service by inviting everyone to recite aloud John 3:16 and the 23rd Psalm, and then sing “Jesus Loves Me.” It appeared that everyone who was able to speak or sing knew all three by heart.
It was a gorgeous display of uncomplicated, life-long faith. I left the chapel thinking of the many lives that were nearly fully represented there, and of Rachel’s life, God willing, only a sliver of it spent. I left wondering if she and the experience she helped create had made anybody’s day other than mine, and thinking that Rachel probably had the answer and it was probably yes. I left feeling glad that Thora had invited us, and thankful for her life, and Michelle’s, and Rachel’s, and mine. It was a very good experience in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.