By Grayson Hester
The small town of Camden, S.C., doesn’t have a national reputation like other larger communities in the Palmetto State well known for college football and beaches. It does hold the distinction of being the state’s oldest inland town and has a rich history of horse racing as home of the Carolina Cup and Steeplechase training facilities.
But, this month, and seemingly overnight, this little place has become the state’s epicenter of a global pandemic.
“My people keep responding, over and over again, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this before,’” said, Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Nance-Coker, pastor of Lakeview Baptist Church.
Camden is the seat of Kershaw County, which, despite boasting to being just shy of 62,000 people, has seen more COVID-19 cases than any other county in the state. As of March 26, 60 people had tested positive for the disease. And in the center of this crisis sits Nance-Coker and her small congregation, notable, not simply for its proximity to the pandemic, but for the unusual risk of its members.
Lakeview’s congregation contains a disproportionate number of nonagenarians—that is to say, people aged 90 or above— who are still independent, driving (safely, Nance-Coker was quick to clarify), and living active lives. For a disease infamous for targeting people 65 and up, this poses a very urgent problem to Lakeview. But it also affords the church an unusual opportunity.
“We take a pause and listen,” Nance-Coker said. “Then folks will start to remember the various wars they lived through as children, the social challenges they faced, the real economic challenges. That is why they’re resilient— because they’ve lived through all that.”
COVID-19 has brought to the fore a largely subterranean issue, as Jewish author Shai Held called it in The Atlantic: “the staggering, heartless cruelty toward the elderly.”
Muting the voices of elders is nothing new in American or Western culture. Anecdotal and statistical evidence alike attest to the pervasive problem of elder abuse, nursing home neglect, or, in the worst cases, financial exploitation. But our current crisis has shed harsh light on this attitude. It finds expression in everything from less-endangered young folks refusing to quarantine or the constant framing of elders as nothing more than inevitable casualties.
Lakeview and its pastor will have none of it. “Hearing [their] stories—even though I’ve heard them before—right now, in this pandemic, there’s a sense of Sabbath,” Nance-Coker said. “There’s a sense a holiness, of holding space and time, and I hear that in their stories.”
While the technological and generational gaps have, in some ways, made ministering to Lakeview’s uncommonly-aged population difficult (What’s a Zoom call to people who may not even have an email account?), it has nonetheless allowed for wisdom and wit to surface. One of the congregants joked to his grandson: “You know why you delivered these groceries? Because I’m O-L-D—On Lock Down.”
Or the tale of a church member who said they believe God will see them through because they saw God do it in the Great Depression and World War II and the Cold War and all the hard events that were to follow. Nance-Coker said this thinking allows a window into what these folks are doing to help themselves cope. And it looks less like streaming and more like watering a garden; less like watching stories splash across a TV and more like telling stories from a near-century of experience.
These are stories worth listening to. And Dr. Denise Massey, Associate Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, has the research to prove it. “There’s this idea that many cultures, especially in the past, valued the elders for their experience, and that it brings wisdom and knowledge and abilities to teach people who haven’t had the experience,” she said.
In gerontology—the study of aging—common belief holds that people in the last third of their lives will experience many transitions, including what Massey called a shift from doing to being.
As people age, they, ideally, begin to identify less with what they do or produce, and more with who they are. They also slow down and focus on doing a few things well as opposed to many things with varied success. And in a time where staying home and doing nothing is mandated for many, this elder lesson demands our attention.
“The goal isn’t to stop working or doing; but the goal is to stop valuing yourself for what you do,” Massey said. “It’s a shift in how you perceive yourself. It’s not a call to stop doing things, but it does invite careful reflection.”
And it is this reflection with which Nance-Coker has become, in just a few short weeks, intimately familiar. Despite the statistics and despite the uncertainty, Nance-Coker and Lakeview Baptist have found wisdom and solace—not in news or in the young, but in their elders. “All I know is: I was blind and now I can see. All I know is: God is with us.”
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has created a resource hub for the benefit of individuals and congregations in these uncertain times. Bold Faith Resources features original and curated resources for children, youth, adults, worship, missions, prayer, spiritual care, Spanish speakers and digital ministry resources for churches. This hub also includes all COVID-19-related news and updates for the Fellowship. Learn more at www.cbf.net/boldfaith.