Encouraging spirituality in a death-denying culture

April 11, 2011 10:58 AM
“Minor details become catastrophic to families when people ignore the obvious,” says Pastor David Rommereim. He’s talking about end-of-life decisions: preparing a will, naming a health care proxy, settling family issues. “We’re trying to be honest and real with those things, while finding a way to practice our faith.”
For the past year, Pr. Rommereim’s congregation, Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Brooklyn, has been partnering with Bay Ridge United Methodist Church to bring an honest conversation about aging, dying, and spirituality to the neighborhood. It started through community organizing. When Brooklyn Congregations United interviewed 100 neighbors in 2009, Bay Ridge was found to be a “naturally occurring retirement community,” with 28% of residents over age 65. Plus, the congregations themselves recognized that they were facing a new era with large memberships of senior citizens.
“We are saturated with programs here,” said Pr. Rommereim, “but there was no continuity of care for people who are between Medicaid and Medicare, who don’t have enough money, whose medications run out, who don’t have family. We wanted to be deliberate about our faith. If you engage in a deliberate spiritual journey, whatever your age, you are physically healthier. Spiritual care is vital to health.” The Lutheran and Methodist congregations—who already shared a building—partnered along with Lutheran HealthCare to launch an innovative ministry with the aging: Spiritual Care with the Older Adult.
In honor of Sister Elizabeth Fedde who founded Lutheran Medical Center 128 years earlier, the congregations wanted to re-introduce a deaconess presence to manage the ministry. Sister Kathleen Brighton, who had just completed her master’s degree in Congregational and Community Care: Aging, was called to a full-time position in early 2010. “The fact that God would use me for ministry with the aged is a blessing,” she says. “I’m a cancer survivor. I have macular degeneration and hearing aids and arthritis. I can speak to the elderly about Lifeline medical alerts and tub rails and vertigo—this is not something to be embarrassed about. This is something that we address and go on.”
Through one-on-one visits, Sr. Brighton assesses people’s needs and works to connect people to the resources that are needed to confront medical issues, food issues, spirituality issues, housing issues, and end-of-life issues. One day a week, the deaconess works as a chaplain at Augustana Lutheran Home, a long-term health care facility. The role allows her to identify people who may be discharged without the resources that they need. When not meeting individually with senior citizens, Sr. Brighton is offering spiritual retreats, weekly “Embracing Your Spiritual Journey” workshops, and seminars on preventive health. Her case load is between 50-70 people. Spiritual Care with the Older Adult is not limited to members of the two congregations; rather, it’s a ministry for the community.
“We are a death-denying culture, yet it crosses all ethnic beliefs,” says Sr. Brighton. “My challenge is to present information that will open hearts and minds and spirits to another way of thinking about church, living, dying, and growing old.”