What if someone told you there was an untouched mission field in the United States, right under your nose? That’s the news the Revs. Jim and Cathy Amendolia of Living Faith Anglican Church Mesa are spreading to churches across Mesa, Arizona, and beyond. The husband and wife duo planted Living Faith five years ago in Legacy Retirement Village, with the distinct mission of taking the Gospel, liturgy and Eucharist to the elderly population, many of whom are disabled and cannot go to church.
“Hardly anybody comes to visit them. Some of the residents have families who don’t even visit them,” Cathy, a counselor, says. “We’ve seen a community of faith grow out of that, and the residents see this church as their place.”
While many other churches unintentionally marginalize the elderly, Living Faith Mesa makes it their mission to recognize and celebrate the needs and gifts of people in their twilight years. Tens of thousands of seniors flock to the Arizona climate and retirement homes or assisted living facilities, and many of them are starved for spiritual nurture. For that reason, 101 of Legacy’s residents are thrilled to attend a church in their midst. Living Faith holds one service at 10 am on Sundays in Legacy’s multi-purpose room, and another service at 10 am Fridays in the Alzheimer’s wing of the facility. Visiting preachers or seminary students sometimes held services there in the past, but they lacked what the elderly need most—consistency and pastoral care. Jim and Cathy offer both, spending several days a week visiting congregants in their rooms or in the hospital.
Jim describes the services as “non-traditional,” based on the needs of their members. The structure is simple and interactive, with piano music and the order of service printed in extra-large font. Because a throng of wheelchairs, walkers and oxygen tanks make it impossible to come forward, Jim and Cathy take the Eucharist to each individual, addressing them by name.
“Amazingly, even memory care patients, who can’t remember what happened three minutes ago, remember how to take the Eucharist,” Jim says. “It’s a tremendous move of the Lord in their hearts to bring back those things that they knew from their youth.”
Jim preaches regularly with Cathy preaching about once a month. To encourage the elderly to share their wisdom and experience, the Amendolias periodically ask them to give their testimonies. The couple also encourages story sharing in the coffee-and-donuts social time before services.
One challenge the church faces is cross-generational communication. As a first step toward a solution, Jim and Cathy are working on a partnership with a Lutheran church’s youth group to promote more dialogue between the young and old. Giving the elderly a voice in the lives of young people, Jim believes, will help them stay engaged in life and faith.
We can’t keep putting the elderly off in the corner and relegating them to some sort of knitting circle on Tuesday or sitting around stuffing envelopes. These folks have something to say. The reason these old folks start dropping out [of church] is because nobody’s talking to them.”
He admits it may be tough to listen to stories of the “good ole days,” but if that’s what it takes to mine the rich spiritual legacy of an older person, it’s well worth it. At 104, Living Faith’s oldest member is a prime example.
“She is the coolest lady,” Cathy says. “Her daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter are all Christians. There is a real spiritual legacy there. She has a lot to share about her faith and her life and what the Lord has brought her through.”
And the need for more ministers cannot be ignored. The Amendolias’ goal is to spur church planting in other assisted living properties around East Mesa and beyond. Jim, who is writing his doctoral dissertation on church planting among institutionalized elderly, encourages pastors at local churches to use Living Faith as a model for growing and worshipping together in an assisted living residence. It’s also an excellent opportunity to plant a multi-site of an existing church. Jim has already had requests from four or five other retirement homes for a church in their midst, but does not yet have the planters.
“When you look at the numbers of Baby Boomers showing up, the elderly population will get incredibly big by 2020-2025,” Jim says. “Those people will be the dominant population in our country. The opportunity is there to tap into these folks who are asking for help.”