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May9FriAs more people experience loneliness, Salvation Army churches are reaching out. May 9, 2014 by Kristin Ostensen
An elderly man made headlines around the world this past Christmas. Not because he was famous or remarkable in a way, but because he was lonely.
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Tired of spending Christmas by himself year after year, James Gray of Ireland placed an ad in the local paper asking for people to spend the holiday with. “I think the last time I saw someone on Christmas Day was when I saw my accountant about 10 years ago,” he told the Irish Post. Only one person responded to his appeal, but later backed out.
Disheartened, Gray expected another lonely Christmas. However, his story was picked up by news outlets in Ireland and beyond, and soon readers were sending him a deluge of cards and gifts—the first he'd received in years.
It's a heartwarming story, but such an outpouring of support is rare. For every James Gray, how many others remain alone and forgotten?
In Canada, loneliness is on the rise. Recent reports show that 27.6 percent of Canadians live alone—a trend that has been accelerating since 2000—and almost one-quarter describe themselves as lonely (see "The Loneliness Crisis").
We are also more transient than ever before. In 2012, more than 300,000 Canadians migrated from one province to another for work, school or to get a fresh start, while another 200,000 newcomers arrive in Canada each year. This mobility often comes with a price: families are fractured, friends are left behind and support systems are lost.
In his groundbreaking book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam documented the decline of social interaction in the United States, concluding that we are becoming increasingly disconnected from one another as our social structures, such as churches, disappear. Indeed, only 27 percent of Canadians say they attend church at least once a month, down from 43 percent in 1986.
These numbers suggest that a loneliness crisis is imminent. But in the midst of this alarming trend, Salvation Army churches are already reaching out, creating communities for those who would otherwise be left on the margins.
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A "Belonging" Army
TRACY HURLBERT IS a self-described social butterfly. She's at the Army's Thunder Bay Community Church, Ont., three times a week, involved in the church's anti-exploitation committee and ministry to seniors, and part of a community curling team. But for much of her life, she has struggled with loneliness.
Hurlbert has narcolepsy and multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects the nervous system. With three of her limbs affected, Hurlbert only has the use of one arm, getting around with the help of a wheelchair. As she lives alone, her physical challenges have made it difficult for her to meet people and build friendships.
“It's lonely being in a chair—especially in the winter,” she says. “You can't get out much.”
Originally a Christmas kettle volunteer, Hurlbert came to the church 10 years ago, eventually becoming a soldier.
“The minute I came to The Salvation Army, I felt comfortable and welcome,” she says. “When I come in the door, I feel like I'm just getting home.”
As Major Karen Puddicombe, corps officer, explains, the key to the church's welcoming atmosphere is intentional inclusiveness.
“It's consistently trying to give people a sense that they belong,” says Major Puddicombe. “We can't just say we're a 'belonging' Army—we have to exemplify it in all that we do. We try to draw people in, in very non-threatening ways, and accept them for who they are.”
One way the church includes Hurlbert and others is through physical accessibility. The church is equipped with an elevator and a doorbell for those needing assistance to enter the building. No one is left out of ministry because of physical challenges.
“It's hard for me to do dishes and things like that, so they'll ask me to be a greeter, or they'll ask if I want to be part of a committee,” Hurlbert says.
We can't just say we're a 'belonging' Army—we have to exemplify it in all that we do
When the church held a fashion show fundraiser last summer, three people with physical disabilities participated.
“We designed the space so that they, too, could model in their wheelchairs,” Major Puddicombe notes.
At Thunder Bay, being inclusive means recognizing the unique needs of the congregation. In addition to accommodating persons with physical challenges, the church also focuses on singles ministry, since about 60 percent of the congregation are single. Every Wednesday night, the church holds a communal supper program called Elevate, which attracts singles, university students living away from home, newcomers and anyone else who would like a good, home-cooked meal.
“They're no longer just going home and eating dinner by themselves; they're coming and eating with a group of people,” says Major Puddicombe. “We give them a place to feel at home.” The church advertises Elevate on Twitter and Kijiji, and has discovered that many people are coming to the church after finding it online.
Hurlbert is a regular at Elevate, along with her foster sister, Dawn Hamilton, who has cerebral palsy and uses a computer to communicate because she cannot talk.
“Sometimes, I feel all alone, even in a crowd, because people forget that I can understand them and that I have thoughts and feelings I want to express,” says Hamilton. “At church, people often come up to me and talk with me. Sometimes, they don't understand my computer, but they watch my facial expressions and try to include me.
“Even those who don't understand me love me and make me feel welcome,” she adds. “This is a place I don't feel lonely.”
Hurlbert says that her own challenges with physical disability and loneliness help her to minister to others, particularly when she visits homes for seniors with the Army.
“When they see the chair, they know someone understands their situation because a lot of them are in chairs,” she says. “Lonely people are sometimes really shy, but when they know you're with the Army, they start talking to you and before you know it, you've had a half-hour conversation. It gives them a half hour less of loneliness, and it gives me an opportunity to not feel so bad myself.”
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WHEN MARGUERITE GILBERT moved to Campbell River, B.C., two years ago, she had never felt more alone. After 37 years of marriage, her husband had left her and she was devastated. “I was in a hole and I didn't know how to get out of it,” she says.
Gilbert grew up in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L., in a Salvation Army family with six sisters and eight brothers. It's a support network she has sorely missed since she moved to Port McNeill, B.C., 18 years ago.
“Because they were so far away, I didn't want to burden them with my problems,” she says. “Then all of a sudden I had to tell them my husband and I were splitting up. They were shocked—they had no idea.”
Like Gilbert, who moved to be close to her daughter, many people in Campbell River are migrants.
“There's a large percentage of the population who aren't from here,” says Captain Gordon Taylor, corps officer, Ocean Crest Community Church. “Their families and their roots are elsewhere, so homesickness is common.”
A town of 30,000 people, Campbell River can be a tough city for newcomers to break into.
“Moving here was hard,” Gilbert shares. “It was hard to trust people, until I really got involved at Ocean Crest.” Gilbert started attending the church shortly after moving to Campbell River.
“One morning, before I went to church, I prayed and asked God to put someone in my life that I could talk to and share things with,” she says. “And that Sunday, a woman came in and sat by me. We started talking and found we had a lot in common. It really helped to have somebody.”
I feel alive again knowing that I have this church and these friends
Since then, Gilbert has become close friends with a number of women at the church, especially through a women's Bible study group. “I found that really helpful,” she says. “We could open up about things in our own lives as we studied the Bible.”
The church also has an active events committee, which organizes events such as a women's fun night, a men's pizza tasting and a church outing to a nearby mountain for tubing. These “entry-level” events, Captain Taylor says, are meant to encourage people to join small groups. “Whatever form that small group takes, we want people to connect on a regular basis and be involved in each other's lives.”
As difficult and lonely as the past two years have been, Gilbert says the experience has brought her closer to God.
“When my husband left, I kind of blamed God,” she says. “But even when I was angry at God, I felt close to him. I prayed more because he was the one that understood everything that I was going through.
“I feel alive again knowing that I have this church and these friends,” Gilbert adds. “Sometimes you don't want to open up to people, but when you do, they receive you and don't judge you. I feel very blessed to be part of Ocean Crest.”
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Peace of Mind
FOR PEOPLE LIKE Hurlbert and Gilbert, loneliness is often the result of difficult or traumatic circumstances. But in some cases, social isolation is self-imposed.
Bill Esau was a casual drinker when he moved to Campbell River 20 years ago. Since he was very young, he had always felt like he didn't fit in, “and alcohol took that insecurity away,” he says. But when his father passed away, Esau's drinking escalated. He began relying on alcohol even more, drinking from morning to night to try to cope with his despair.
Esau grew up in a Christian family and attended church on and off over the years. He and his wife started attending Ocean Crest Community Church in 2005.
“I didn't care much at that point, but my wife was really happy with it,” he says. “People were friendly, and there were many opportunities for service. It was more like a family.”
How the church stood behind me and supported me was just amazing. They didn't say, 'You're just an alcoholic—you're not welcome here'
But the more he drank, the less Esau wanted to be around people.
“The people at Ocean Crest had always been good to me, but some days I couldn't wait to get out of there,” he says. “I was ashamed. I didn't want people to know how bad things were in my life. As long as nobody was around, I didn't have to be embarrassed about it—it was OK.”
Even as he became more isolated and lonely, Esau couldn't bring himself to reach out and get help. It took an accident at work for him to finally go to rehab.
“The first Sunday I was there, I felt very alone,” he says. “But I knew that it was Sunday morning and the people at Ocean Crest would be in church. All of a sudden I had a peace come over my heart. I knew the church was praying for me. The loneliness just went away.”
Since then, Esau has rededicated his life to God and built solid friendships with many people at Ocean Crest, including his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor.
“How the church stood behind me and supported me was just amazing,” he continues. “They didn't say, 'You're just an alcoholic—you're not welcome here.' I feel so accepted.”
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THE LONELINESS MANY people face is the tragic result of social isolation, but it also reflects a greater spiritual reality—our separation from God. We may sing the old chorus What a Friend We Have in Jesus, but how many people would say those words still ring true? Do the socially isolated have a friend in the church?
“People are looking for a friend with skin on,” says Major David Ivany, spiritual director, pastoral services. “It's not enough to say that God is with us and for us. We need someone to walk that through with us.”
At the same time, reaching out to isolated people can be difficult because many people don't want others to know that they are experiencing loneliness.
“We're all broken, but no one wants to admit they're broken,” says Major Ivany. “We like to look like we have everything together.”
Reaching out effectively means looking beyond how things appear on the surface and finding ways to include people. Even the simplest actions can be incredibly meaningful, says Major Puddicombe.
Reaching out effectively means looking beyond how things appear on the surface
“We had a single woman from our congregation over for dinner and she told us she hadn't had a roast beef dinner in four years because she wouldn't prepare a big dinner like that just for herself,” Major Puddicombe shares. “Now whenever we have big meals, we invite her to come over.”
As a church, Thunder Bay is conscious of holding events that everyone can attend.
“Given our circumstances, we'd have a movie night for the whole congregation, instead of a couples' night,” Major Puddicombe says. “It's about being aware of how we can bring people together no matter what, so that no one is excluded.”
“Faith and community are deeper than just, 'How are you doing?' 'Fine,' smiling and moving on,” says Major Ivany. “Creating a space where we hear and validate someone's story—that's the goal.”