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Finding unexpected joy in memory care

Balloon volleyball is one of many activities at Respite Ministry, a memory care program that was founded at First United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Photo courtesy of Respite Ministry.
Balloon volleyball is one of many activities at Respite Ministry, a memory care program that was founded at First United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Photo courtesy of Respite Ministry.

Retired and looking for a way to serve, United Methodist John Bell wasn’t sure he had what it takes to volunteer at his church’s program for people living with memory loss.

“I didn’t know if I would be saddened by what I saw,” the former educator recalls about the First United Methodist Church at Montgomery, Alabama, ministry.

He signed up any way, even though he left the first day unconvinced that Respite Ministry was the right fit for him.

“But by the second time,” Bell shares, “it became apparent that where you think there would be a great deal of sadness, there was joy, a great deal of joy.”

Bell is one of dozens of volunteers at the core of Respite Ministry’s success, a care program that started at FUMC and is being replicated throughout the United States at United Methodist churches, as well as within other faith communities. One of the reasons for the success, leaders believe, is the love that radiates throughout the program.

The Second Commandment

Loving his neighbor is exactly how Larry Carter views his time at the program.

“Love your God with all of your heart, but love your neighbor like yourself,” says Carter, a regular Respite Ministry volunteer who spent 41 years in the Air Force before retiring. When he and his wife, a nurse, joined FUMC, Johnston quickly approached them to ask Carter’s wife to volunteer. Cyndi Carter started volunteering seven years ago; Carter started six.

“I’m not seeing any boundaries on how you love your neighbor,” Carter says, adding that being a part of Respite Ministry has made his life richer.

“I can see the Lord at work in so many different ways,” Carter declares. “Every volunteer there is a testimony to the Second Commandment. The experience is made it richer and more alive being around people that have that spirit.”

“There is no certainty in knowing the participant understands or doesn’t understand,” Carter points out. “You never know what you’re dealing with and pretty soon it doesn’t matter because you just show love regardless. And that seems to work in all cases.”

“If it’s a job, it wouldn’t be a fun job. But if it’s a calling, then it’s pure love. There’s a difference there,” says Carter.

Finding her community

Priscilla Tubbs had no idea that taking her husband who was living with memory loss to a respite care program would lead her to her own faith community.

When Tubbs’ husband, Allen, was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, his doctor suggested the former biologist and college educator get involved with pastimes to keep his brain active.

Soon after, her husband began attending Respite Ministry.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to him,” Tubbs says. Allen Tubbs received a second diagnosis of frontal temporal dementia, which accelerated his memory loss. This past winter, Tubbs moved her husband to fulltime care.

“I had an empty feeling,” Tubbs says of those first days. “I knew that I needed to do something, so I asked if I could volunteer (at Respite Ministry).

She switched from caregiver who dropped off her husband at Respite Ministry for more than three years to one of the people staying and spending time with the participants once a week.

“It has filled my heart in a way that you can’t imagine,” Tubbs says of her new role.

Two months ago, Tubbs made her relationship with FUMC official when she became a member.

“I didn’t go to church because of Respite,” Tubbs clarifies. “I already belonged to Respite. I joined the church because I love the way this little respite group grew out of it. It is good. It has certainly brought me closer to the faith that I really wanted.”

“It’s a community of absolute love and caring in that respite building,” Tubbs remarks.

Friend serving friend

Respite Ministry began in 2012 when FUMC’s pastor at the time, the Rev. Dr. Lawson Bryan, recruited Daphne Johnston, a member at FUMC, to start the community outreach program. In the past 10 years, FUMC’s program has inspired 18 similar respite ministries throughout the United States. At FUMC alone, 14 volunteers and two participants in 2012 have multiplied to 120 volunteers who serve 20 participants daily four times a week. Johnston, who serves as Respite Ministry's executive director, has written a guidebook for other churches to duplicate Respite Ministry, a much-needed offering in our church, Johnston believes.

“The median age of United Methodists is 57,” Johnston points out. “What ministry do we have to serve our base? Respite uses Baby Boomer volunteers to serve their friends among them. They are changing the life of their neighbor and doing it with a crowd of people. This is the Respite volunteer model. And it’s a tangible Holy Spirit. You can feel that around you.”

Crystal Caviness works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact her by email or at 615-742-5138.

This content was published June 23, 2021.