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AGING WELL: Weekly gathering in D.C. area crosses barriers of age, culture Missy Buchanan, May 17, 2011
By Missy Buchanan Special Contributor
It’s Wednesday afternoon in Washington, D.C., and legislators are rushing through the halls of the U.S. Capitol, debating economic woes as they go.
Just across the Potomac River, the halls of the historic Chesterbrook United Methodist Church are coming alive, too. A group of older adults are arriving at the historic McLean, Va., church for a time of spiritual reflection, reminiscing and fellowship.
Church member Arlin Honaker, a widow of a United Methodist minister, first organized the group, believing that aging church members could benefit from the support and intimacy of a small group study. She began to look for resources that would specifically address the spiritual needs of older adults and soon discovered Richard Morgan’s book, Remembering Your Story: Creating Your Own Spiritual Autobiography. Designed as a resource for a 10-week class, the book served as a springboard for discussing life stories and spiritual legacies.
By the time the group arrived at the end of the 10-week period, class members asked if they could continue to meet. They had grown close to each other as they worked to create their spiritual autobiographies. Ms. Honaker gladly obliged and even encouraged the participants to make scrapbooks and videos as a legacy for their descendants.
But there’s another reason that the Wednesday afternoon class has become so popular with participants. In addition to sharing their life stories and personal memories, the group of older adults has found unexpected joy in their relationship with Jiyeon Kim, a 25 year-old seminarian pastor from the Republic of Korea, who assists Ms. Honaker with the class.
At first glance, the relationship might seem an unlikely blend of ages and cultures: older adults facing the challenges of physical decline and a second-year student of Washington, D.C.’s Wesley Theological Seminary who is still learning about American culture and the nuances of the English language.
The Rev. Kathleene Card, senior pastor at Chesterbrook UMC, believes it was a match made in heaven. “Jiyeon is a breath of fresh air!” she says almost gleefully, adding that the seminary intern is an especially good listener who shows great respect for her elders.
It’s not so surprising that Ms. Kim reflects the Korean heritage in which she was raised. She was taught that seniors are to be held in high esteem. She visits Chesterbrook older adults in their homes and takes the time to get to know each one. Perhaps what is surprising is her assessment of a primary difference between the Korean church and Chesterbrook.
“In the Korean church, the senior is used to not being an active participant, but rather a passive viewer in worship,” she writes in a recent column for the Chesterbrook newsletter. “Out of respect, seniors are deprived of a chance to serve in worship in the church.” Ms. Kim celebrates the culture at Chesterbrook where seniors actively serve in worship alongside children and youth. She thinks that’s the way it should be.
“Harmonization beyond the boundaries of age helps to throw open the door of Chesterbrook UMC,” she writes. “The kingdom of God can be here, in our place.”
Although age-specific ministries have an important role in the life of the church, it is easy for congregations to become segregated by age, creating few opportunities for intergenerational interaction. But when the generations reach out to one another and learn to appreciate each other’s unique gifts and perspectives, the church becomes more unified. Even negative stereotypes begin to fall away. It seems a lesson embraced by the Chesterbrook congregation.
Serving at Chesterbrook has given Ms. Kim an opportunity to utilize her youthful familiarity with technology. The older congregants are in awe of her computer savvy. After recording videos of each of the senior adults talking about their faith stories, Ms. Kim edited the interviews into a first-rate video that was shown at the church’s charge conference, where the older adults looked on with great pride. Ms. Card notes that Ms. Kim is getting valuable experience in every area of ministry, including baptisms, weddings and funerals. But it is her kind heart and authenticity that make her easily accepted and trusted by older adults.
On most Wednesday afternoons you can find Ms. Kim sitting among her elders in a classroom at Chesterbrook. Soon all eyes turn to this young woman whom the older adults have come to love and respect. It is her turn to share a story about her own faith journey.
Ms. Buchanan, a member of FUMC Rockwall, Texas, is the author of several books, including Don’t Write My Obituary Just Yet: Inspiring Faith Stories for Older Adults (Upper Room Books). Visit her Facebook page, Aging and Faith.