‘Messy Seniors’ brings church to the people

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The Rev. Heather Liddell shares the story of “Messy Seniors” at the Messy Church Canada Conference October 27 at Wycliffe College in Toronto. Photo: Joelle Kidd

Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Edmonton, Alta., thought Messy Church would be a perfect fit. The largest church in its diocese, Holy Trinity runs large children’s and youth programs and has an active congregation.

It seemed like a good idea. The all-ages monthly service centred around craft activities, storytelling and sharing a meal; kids and grown-ups enjoyed the biblical learning activities. “We built blanket forts in the sanctuary, we packed lunches for our trip with the three Magi,” recalled the Rev. Heather Liddell, assistant curate at Holy Trinity, during a workshop she led October 27 at the Messy Church Canada Conference at Wycliffe College in Toronto, Ont.

While kids and families were a target audience of Messy Church, Liddell and her team tried intentionally to include single people, childless adults and seniors in the ministry.

Eventually, they noticed, these groups were far more interested in attending the Messy Church than the young families were. “We realized a traditional Messy wasn’t the best fit for our context when we admitted that every session was a struggle,” Liddell wrote in an email to the Anglican Journal. It was difficult to get volunteers, attendance was low and it was not uncommon for Liddell to be “up until the wee hours prepping crafts, alone…or cleaning up, alone.”

The team at Holy Trinity realized they had launched the program without thinking about who was in their community and who it was designed to serve.

To find out who actually lived in their community, Liddell said, the team pulled census data for the area. They were surprised to find that almost no kids lived nearby. “What we found was a lot of really lonely seniors,” Liddell told conference attendees.

The area is populated with retiree and assisted living homes. “We started asking the question, ‘What would Messy Church look like with them?’ ”

The answer to that question became Canada’s first Messy Church ministry directed toward senior citizens. (“Messy Vintage,” a U.K. initiative, offers something similar.)

“Messy Seniors” is held in a high-needs home for seniors with advanced cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Liddell hopes that other Messy Churches can be started in other seniors’ homes in their community.

Bringing the church into the care home was an exercise in contextualizing. Using the core values of Messy Church—Christ-centred, for all ages, creativity, hospitality and celebration—Liddell and her team adapted the program for a new setting.

The context had its challenges; care home rules prevent bringing in outside food, for example, meaning they were unable to follow the typical Messy Church model of eating a hot meal together. With so many attendees struggling with arthritis or failing eyesight, crafts that require dexterity or heavy reading were not ideal. However, because of Messy Church’s “free-flowing structure,” Liddell says, it was easy to adapt for different needs. What’s more, she says, it brought together children and seniors. “It is precisely that intergenerational piece that is so important and so often missing from our church’s [across the Communion] approaches to care for seniors.”

In fact, at the “Messy Seniors” Church, children lead the service as “trained volunteers.” Empowering children to lead the church activities “gives them the opportunity to interact with someone they wouldn’t have a chance to in their regular lives.”

“Is there any better picture of the kingdom of heaven than a little girl helping a wheelchair-bound man in his 90s—whose family is faraway and too busy to visit very often—tie knots (that his fingers are too arthritic to make) in a simple star mobile while talking about God’s promise to make Abraham’s descendants more numerous than the stars?”

One young girl who wasn’t sure she wanted to come because “old people are gross and smell funny,” “left walking on air and asking when she can come back,” Liddell said. “She is by far our best recruiter for volunteers.”

Our society, Liddell says, has “sequestered the aging process,” and children don’t get much chance to spend time with the elderly. “It is mostly a fear of the unknown—once kids start interacting with the elderly, they realize not only how fun they can be, but that they’re people, too.”

The Messy Church model, with its emphasis on hands-on activities and storytelling, is “fun, silly and familiar without being infantilizing,” says Liddell. With many residents in the care home struggling with memory and eyesight loss, hearing a familiar story, lovingly told, is precious.

“Life is messy, and getting older is difficult. It changes our perspectives any time we step out of our comfort zones and encounter a new aspect of life. It’s the same if you’re 6, 10, 25 or 90.”

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Joelle Kidd
Joelle Kidd joined the Anglican Journal in 2017 as staff writer. She has worked as an editor and writer for the Winnipeg-based Fanfare Magazine Group and as freelance copy editor for Naida Communications.

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