When help is a religious calling

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Barbara Ruben

Leann Sherman, right, director of the Elderly Ministries program of Rockville Community Ministries, visits with client Ann Maslar. The interfaith nonprofit provides a variety of services to those in need of all ages, while its Elderly Ministries program focuses on home care and home safety assistance for seniors. A number of nonprofit faith-based organizations in the area focus on the needs of older residents.
Photo by Chuck Lee

Liz McRanney hasn’t been able to drive for years. While the area’s Metro Access service will take her to scheduled doctor appointments and for shopping, she sometimes found herself spending hours waiting for the shared van trips.

So she’s enjoyed being shepherded around five or six times a month for the past few years by volunteers from a nonprofit in her area:  the Shepherd’s Center of McLean-Arlington-Falls Church. The group provides transportation assistance, shopping help, minor home repairs and companionship for local older adults, as well as referrals to other resources.

“It’s a blessing and an absolute godsend,” said McRanney, who is 72 and lives in Falls Church, Va.

While the interfaith Shepherd’s Center — which has five centers in Northern Virginia and 55 more throughout the country — is non-sectarian and serves older adults regardless of religious belief, McRanney says she likes the fact that the group has as foundation in the faith community. 

“They come across as very compassionate and caring,” she said of the volunteers. “Some talk about their faith and church. It’s nice to have that in common.”

Throughout the Washington area, one can find groups with religious roots focusing their good works on the needs of older adults.

While their efforts may not have a specific theological origin, and certainly don’t involve evangelism, they generally look to their faith’s teachings for inspiration, while providing social service support without regard to the religion of their recipients.

The Beacon contacted several of the larger organizations to learn more about their services and sense of calling.

Shepherd’s Center

Many religious nonprofits have a diverse base of support that includes funding from congregations and religious organizations, individual donors and government grants.

But the shoestring budget of the Shepherd’s Center of McLean-Arlington-Falls Church avoids reliance on governmental funding as a matter of principle.

That position goes back to the founding of the chapter about three years ago by Edward Schrock, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and Virginia state senator.

“Having been part of the government process for most of my life, I realized pretty soon that [relying on government grants] wasn’t going to work,” he said. “There are so many hoops you have to jump through, that by the time you got around to doing what you were supposed to do, it just wasn’t worthwhile.”

Instead, funding comes from local congregations and businesses, program fees, individuals and fundraising events. And the center relies entirely on volunteer labor. Congregations donate office space and program help.

For more information about the Shepherd’s Center, or to volunteer or seek assistance, see www.scmafc.org or call (703) 506-2199.

Jewish Council for the Aging

As with many other groups, the mission of the Jewish Council for the Aging (JCA) is to “help older adults of all faiths, ethnicities and walks of life,” said executive director David Gamse. “We like to say we’re the Jewish Council for the Aging, not the Council for the Jewish Aging.”

Started in 1973, JCA serves the entire metropolitan area, providing services such as adult day care, transportation, intergenerational programs, technology training, and information and referral. JCA has more than 800 volunteers helping to provide its many services.

“In a sense, our work is based on the Jewish concept of tzedakah [charity/good works]. It’s not merely donating to a cause, but extending a hand across the table, realizing that you could be in their shoes,” he said.

Some of JCA’s services are provided on a fee-for-service basis, but a sliding scale ensures that those with low incomes can still obtain help. Building on that concept, “part of our faith-based philosophy is to ensure that no one is turned away. We don’t want financial hardship to make it difficult to access our services,” Gamse said.

The fact that the group’s very name says “Jewish” has affected funding in two ways. While it may have kept some corporations and other potential donors from contributing, more than 40 percent of JCA’s $6 million annual budget comes from philanthropists, most of whom are Jewish, Gamse said.

The group also accepts government grants, which help fund some major projects. These include their annual 50+Employment Expos, which attract thousands of older job seekers, and the Career Gateway program, which helps retirees successfully transition back into the work force.

Not only JCA’s volunteers, but its employees also respond to the group’s calling. Many remain as volunteers after they retire from the organization, Gamse said.

“In faith-based organizations, the pay is often low. But people are working at what they love to do, and see the impact it has every day.”

To learn more about JCA, visit www.accessjca.org or call (301) 255-4200 or (703) 425-0999

Seabury Resources for Aging

For many years, Seabury Resources for Aging was known as Episcopal Senior Ministries, but it dropped the overt reference to religion in its name in 2010. The connection is still evident in a subtle way, however, as the first American Episcopal bishop was named Samuel Seabury.

“While we started as an Episcopal organization, we recognized that Episcopalians aren’t any different than everyone else. Their needs are universal,” said Executive Director Joseph E. Resch, Jr., in explaining the name change.

Seabury Resources owns and operates several senior living communities and homes, offers a network of social and home maintenance serves for Washington, D.C. residents in several wards, and provides care management, transportation, and information and referral.

While its religious origins do not influence its services or determine who is served, Resch said, all of Seabury’s board members have a church connection.

“Because our board members have a congregation affiliation, it does influence some of our discussions about services, what’s needed and how it’s delivered. They bring the concerns they have about their older congregation members,” he said.

In addition, Seabury has been designated as the organization that provides leadership and coordination of aging services for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

For more information about Seabury Resources for Aging, see http://seaburyresources.org or call (202) 414-6315.

Community Ministries

Community Ministries of Rockville traces its roots back to the merging of two churches in 1967, and has been evolving ever since to offer help for all ages through emergency assistance programs, housing for the homeless, a health clinic, and classes in English as a second language.

About 30 years ago, the nonprofit organization added its Elderly Ministries program, which includes two main projects for older City of Rockville residents.

Its home care program offers case management, homemaker services and other support to help older adults remain in their homes comfortably. Clients receive two to four hours of weekly service from certified aides.

The Safe and Habitable Home Project uses volunteers and contractors to help with a range of services, from plumbing to replacement of furnaces. The program also installs safety devices, such as grab bars and railings.

A related program that was started recently works with firefighters to test and install smoke detectors and inspect homes for fire hazards.

“People feel like someone cares about them. It’s nice to know that they have a presence in their lives,” said Deputy Director Lynn Arndt.

Just $58,000 of Community Ministries of Rockville’s $2.9 million annual budget comes from its 22 member congregations and other religious organizations. A large part comes from local government contracts and foundations.

As its name implies, religious institutions throughout the community participate in the organizations. “Our congregational base is very interfaith — Baptist, Baha’i, Unitarian, Jewish. It’s a wonderful example of comparative religion,” Arndt said.

“But religion plays no role in how we provide service or who we serve,” she added. “The only thing that plays a role is the question, ‘Are you needy?’”

For more information, visit www.cmrocks.org or call (301) 637-0730.