Church Socials : Senior Lives Enriched by Groups Formed at Places of Worship

"Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think.

"Enjoy yourself, while you are in the pink!"

I was heading for the United Methodist Church in Vista when those lines danced out of my car radio's speakers. The church's Golden Years Fellowship had invited me to address them at a Sunday meeting because they thought I might be able to help them meet the challenge to be lively and alive.

"You don't sound like you are 70!" the program chairperson said. I was sure they thought I had a magic formula. The two-line ditty provided the direction I needed.

That noon meeting proved to be a refreshing, learning experience for me. Because so many of our North County communities are composed largely of the "Shades of Gray" generation, it whetted my desire to learn even more about the role of churches and synagogues in the lives of their elders.

Charles Woods, a former Los Angeles policeman and now vice president of the fellowship, explained that 75% of the 425 congregational members are seniors. The church sponsors the group, encourages membership and furnishes the meeting place. The members, meeting together regularly to share thoughts and experiences, provide one another with inspiration and support. For them, congratulating, commiserating with and caring for each other are not only desirable character traits but vitalizing gifts to share and exchange.

Originally formed to join couples who were celebrating or had celebrated 50 years of marriage, the fellowship today is composed of "all members and friends of (our) church 55 and over." It is a vibrant group, its members constantly searching for opportunities to enrich their lives, enhance retirement and maintain the "vigor of old age."

Dr. Stan Creighton, a retired Methodist minister, serves the Vista Church as Visitation Pastor. He is responsible for the all-important outreach to the elderly, the ill and the lonely. This mature clergyman, who possesses hearty warmth, is a comfort to those who need his support and a role model to his peers who wonder, "What is there for me to do in retirement?" He works closely with the very able and active pastor, Dr. John C. Wood, augmenting and extending his work. No congregant at United Methodist Church is left alone to cope with aging, suffering or loneliness.

The written mission of the Golden Years Fellowship is to "promote fellowship, provoke laughter, learn about travel abroad, provide recreation, be informed about aging problems and solutions . . . acquire knowledge of current interests." The richness of its monthly programs reflects these goals. It is not unusual for a poet in the group to read her work, for travelers to share their experiences and encourage trip planning, for hobbyists to demonstrate their hobbies.

Charles Woods is so proud of his church and its fellowship that he beams when he speaks of their activities. An active and creative member, he has written a sanctuary drama that was presented on the pulpit in place of the sermon, teaches a safe driver course at the church and throughout the county and is deeply involved in the group's planning.

Serious and not-so-serious programming keeps fellowship members involved and vibrant. Each program seems to be a lesson in how to "stay young in an aging body."

But these seniors are not concerned with themselves alone. As a group, they traveled to Mexico to participate in former President Jimmy Carter's HABITAT program. They hammered nails into boards, raised walls and secured flooring as part of the program to build new homes in Mexico. They brought their skills, comradeship and good will with them, slept in tents and labored in the heat. And, when they returned, they felt fulfilled and satisfied as only volunteers can feel.

Rabbi Michael Gotlieb, spiritual leader of Temple Judea in Vista, has the same percentage of seniors in his congregation of 140 families. His synagogue also reaches out to its mature population, but in a different way. Because "confronting aloneness" frequently is best accomplished with others who suffer the same experience, this congregation, in partnership with Jewish Family Service in North County, sponsors a variety of support groups.

"Alone but Not Lonely" brings together widows who have experience and direction to share with the recently bereaved. Another group attempts to help grandparents cope with their children's intermarriage. Whether Protestant, Catholic or Jewish, we parents often find it painful to accommodate and accept differences in the religious observances of the spouses of our children and grandchildren. Sharing experiences, often marked by pain and confusion, with others who have similar concerns can be helpful and ameliorating.

In the Methodist church, "circles" are specially constituted groups of people who join to accomplish a shared purpose. For example, a "prayer circle" reaches out to the sick and/or bereaved. In Judaism there are chavurot, comparably small fellowship groups, that are structured along the lines of age, family makeup or special interests. A visit to one of the chavurot of Temple Solel in Encinitas revealed a group of seniors meeting for study and fun.

These dozen couples provided an extended family circle for one another, and they were equally loyal to the larger synagogue family. Just like the Methodists, this Jewish group was planning its trip to Mexico to participate in the HABITAT Program! As I listened to the gray-headed men discuss the sweat and stress of hard labor, I was in awe. When do they age out, I wondered. I found no answer either among the Methodists or the Jews.

Young and old mix and mingle to pray and to learn in the larger communities of church and synagogue. But opportunities to join one's like-minded peers offer extended outreach, capable of creating added inspiration, support, challenge and fulfillment. Churches and synagogues are beginning to understand this and are enabling many of us to find this special satisfaction by encouraging the development of the circle and the chavurot.

Where such opportunities are created for the enlarged enrichment and enhancement of our lives, it can truly be said: We may be advanced in years, but we need not be advanced in tears and fears.

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