The parking lot is empty when Karen and Alice arrive at Arndt’s Lutheran Church, Easton, every Tuesday and Thursday. They quickly busy themselves transforming the entry hall, lounge, choir room, nursery and main hall into a homey atmosphere. The name tag basket comes out. A cart rolls down the hall. Tablecloths appear, with seasonal centerpieces on each table. Coffee perks; hot water steams; extra tables and chairs are set up. Karen and Alice are technically seniors themselves, which is part of the charm of Open Arms Senior Connection – you can’t tell the staff from the participants; age is meaningless.
Three years ago the congregation at little Arndt’s Lutheran Church was at a crossroads. What do we stand for as a congregation? Who do we help? How do we help? What has Jesus called us to do? Discussions led to seeing the potential for the church space to be used during the week in a way that supported community needs. Granted, a suburban church like Arndt’s (historically rural, but now surrounded by the suburbs of the City of Easton, PA) isn’t necessarily in the right location to provide meals for the hungry or a place for urban children to do homework and be mentored. You need a car to get from the center of Easton to the little church on the hill outside of town. But the congregation members zeroed in on a growing population in need – the aging.
“We couldn’t help but notice that our own members were aging, and gradually we would lose people to illness or aging issues that prevented them from being as vital a part of our fellowship community as they had been,” comments Karen Beverly, now congregation council president, but also the director of Open Arms, “We thought we could make a difference with that population – a growing population – of people who can become very isolated in the suburbs. Without social connections, quality of life diminishes; ultimately health is affected. We wanted to impact that.”
Soon the doors open repeatedly and folks come in to warm hellos, hugs, greetings like they were old friends, which they are now – a new community has formed. The chairs fill up, the coffee mugs are filled, too, repeatedly (decaf!), and yummy treats are shared, laughter and chatter filling the air. Special requests and needs are met without a bit of trouble – Sara needs her cushion; Virginia makes her way to the far table to join the card game; Sam talks about playing harmonica and Karen, Alice and numerous other volunteers mingle within. It’s never chaos; there is a daily gathering time, planned programs, music, monthly communion (all activities are optional), but the air is filled with talk and connecting from 10 a.m. when the arrivals begin until the last participant is delivered home, just after 3 p.m. Twice a week, 50 weeks a year, time spent giving, connecting, caring, sharing. Alice and Karen are the last ones to leave, emptying the parking lot once again.
Yes, Open Arms Senior Connection has done what the congregation hoped. It created a new community – one that sprang from a need – into a beautiful new opportunity for human relationship amidst God’s love.
Note: Open Arms Senior Connection is celebrating 4 years; it has over 75 registered participants and over 25 registered volunteers. The annual budget is $12,000, which supports two part time paid staff, all programming and all groceries. No fees are required, but donations are accepted and average $3500 a year. Arndt’s provides rent-free space and some office support. The balance of the budget comes from fundraising and grants, including one from the synod’s Witness and Service Ministry Team. Director Karen Beverly and Nancy Walters, a member of the Operating Committee, are available to speak to other congregations about this mission and how to get started with your own senior program.