Hope Next Door

Date Posted: 
Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A consistory’s connection with neighbors brings healing and hope

Five years ago, Larry Patow was paralyzed.

He’d taken a fall; it happened quickly. Thanks to surgery, a month in a rehab hospital, and two years of physical therapy, Patow has mostly recovered. (He still has nerve damage in his hands.)

For the last three years, he’s visited people who haven’t had the same results with their own recovery.

It’s part of his work as a deacon at his church, Immanuel Reformed in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Each month, the consistory begins its meeting across the street with 45 minutes of devotions with residents of Wildwood, a residential facility for people with brain and spinal cord injuries.

“A lot of these people have been involved in accidents,” Patow says. “It was really hard for me to go at first, to see these people. My heart went out to them, but my brain kept going back to my accident.”

Since January 2012, when the consistory began visiting Wildwood, Patow’s view has changed. Now, he looks forward to the visits. “I really enjoy going there. It kind of lifts you up. You make their day, and they’re always happy to see you, and they’ve always got smiles. It lifts your spirits a bit.”

The devotions consist of singing, watching and discussing a clip from a Bible video, and prayer time. The time ends with a social visit—catching up with the eight or ten people who come regularly.

Pastor Brian Smilde considers the shared devotions a way to incorporate service into an otherwise dry business meeting. “Our meeting times can be more than just doing business,” he says. “We can actually be in the community and serving and doing something good for other people.”

Smilde says Wildwood residents all have memories of life when they were fully functioning. “Many have lost all family and friend contact through the years. There are lots of feelings of rejection and abandonment and loneliness. We’re trying to meet those relational community needs.

“The first year, every time you came, it was kind of like, ‘Oh, you did come back!’ Lately it’s been more, ‘Thank you for keeping coming back,’” he says.

“Here’s a group of people that are kind of on the margins of society—people forget about them,” says Al Shoemaker, who just finished a term as elder. “They’re kind of tucked away. We’re right next door. These are literally our neighbors.”

For Shoemaker, the visits to Wildwood are exactly what Jesus meant in Matthew 25 when he talked about feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, taking care of the sick, and visiting people in prison, “just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (v. 40).

“How many opportunities do you get to literally do what Jesus was talking about?” Shoemaker asks. “I don’t know anybody in jail. This, to me, is exactly what Jesus was asking us to do. They don’t get a lot of visitors. They look forward to something new, something different.”

The visits are popular with Wildwood residents and with consistory members, but they have also shaped the meetings that take place immediately afterward.

“My elders and deacons are starting our meetings with more of a sense of gratitude for our own lives and our life together,” Smilde says. “We see joy and gratitude in the lives of the residents at Wildwood, and they’re all living with brain or spinal injuries. It has kind of changed the attitude of members of consistory.”

Pray for people who are living with disabilities, and pray for people and ministries that connect with them.

Learn more about ministry with people with traumatic brain injuries in the winter 2015 Breaking Barriers.

Looking for practical ideas for local missional engagement in your area? Email local@rca.org.

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