Calvary Chapel Boise, ID: Bringing Songs of Hope into the Bleak Midwinter
Story by Carmel Flippen
Photos by Mat Halverson
Outside an eldercare facility, the sounds of singing rose. Residents long isolated by quarantine came eagerly to their windows, drinking in the sound of familiar carols and the sight of new faces. Carolers from Calvary Chapel Boise, ID, moved from window to window, braving the bitter Idaho winter to pour hope and friendship into what, for many, would be the loneliest Christmas season they ever faced.
As she sang, Stephanie Laws Smith noticed a man inside one window who appeared to be in his 50s, decades younger than most residents. He was likely admitted due to a degenerative illness or serious injury. Compassion welled up inside her for the loneliness and discouragement in his eyes. The carolers had stayed back from the windows in order to safely distance from each other in their family groups; but as the song ended and everyone prepared to move on, Stephanie walked up to the man’s window. Looking into his eyes, she placed her hands on the glass. His face filled with emotion as he placed his hands against hers. “We looked at each other for a little bit. ‘We love you,’ I said. Both of us teared up,” Stephanie remembered. When she finally stepped away, she realized a few men had lined up a safe distance behind her. One after another, “they each went up, putting their hands on the window for a long moment,” she continued. “I can’t explain how powerful it was. It was a moment between men. They were saying [by their actions] ‘We see you, we’re so sorry, we’re there for you.’”
Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. Isaiah 46:4, NIV
On a cold day, Christmas carolers from Calvary Chapel Boise, ID, sing to residents of an eldercare facility. They came as part of Twilight Hope, the church’s elderly outreach. This year, more than 70 families signed up to encourage these elderly residents at several locations before Christmas.
Stephanie directs Twilight Hope, CC Boise’s elderly outreach. At Christmastime they normally invite their whole church to parties in the eight or nine facilities which ministry members have visited throughout the year. “After caroling, we preach the Gospel through the Christmas story. People bring cookies; kids make paper hearts for the residents; we all hang out with them and pray with them,” she said, but in 2020, “all the ministries have had to adapt and change.” Despite all the difficulties inherent in last year’s event, Stephanie was overjoyed that more than 70 families signed up.
Songs in the Silence
While everyone faced increased isolation in 2020, Jake Alger pointed out, “If you think you have it bad, imagine someone who even before [COVID-19] only saw their family once a week. Suddenly they can’t see them at all. Church visits, dog therapy, all the activities they’ve had for years are shut down. They’re completely cut off from the world.” Jake joined Twilight Hope in his mid-20s, simply seeking a way to serve at CC Boise. Thirteen years later, he is still leading a Bible study at the same eldercare facility. “If you try this ministry, it’s really hard not to keep doing it, because you see the incredible need out there,” he said. “On one hand, you have people who may’ve been Christians for 60-plus years but haven’t been able to go to church in a long time; you’re bringing them spiritual nourishment we take for granted. On the other side are people who for some reason may’ve been hardening their hearts to God for 80-some years.”
Carolers at the eldercare facility hold signs with loving messages, including John 3:16. “I wanted the basic Gospel written, even though we couldn’t go in there to speak,” said Stephanie Laws Smith, who directs Twilight Hope. Pre-COVID-19, volunteers would go inside the facilities to share the Christmas story with—and love on—the residents.
Knowing how crucial visits were to residents, Jake refused to let a worldwide pandemic interrupt such important ministry. Technological approaches like Zoom would not work for most, and they craved face-to-face interaction, so Jake scheduled a handful of summer hymnsings outside their windows. Nurses cracked windows so residents could hear better and communicate with their visitors from a safe distance. “It was about 100 degrees outside the first time,” Jake laughed wryly, adding that the residents’ responses made it well worth it: “There were definitely a lot of people with tears in their eyes, saying, ‘Don’t forget us!’”
Now that residents in the same hallway may gather together, Jake weathers the opposite temperature extreme to hold Bible studies outside the main room’s large window. “It isn’t the same,” he admitted, “but the thing with ministry is, you do what you are called to do, and let God do the rest. You don’t worry about whether it’s good enough.”
He has put a new song in my mouth—praise to our God; many will see it and fear [Him],and will trust in the LORD. Psalm 40:3
Volunteers found creative ways to add to the festive spirit, such as the woman who brought her mini-horses decorated with Christmas lights. “We had people coming out of the woodwork, offering whatever they had,” exclaimed Stephanie.
Jake was thrilled that Stephanie used his hymnsing idea for the Christmas events: “Singing carols together, hearing people sing together, matters. It’s the way we were designed to worship, and how we will worship in heaven.”
Carolers held signs sharing messages such as We Love You, Jesus Loves You, and the words of John 3:16. “I wanted the basic Gospel written out even though we couldn’t go in there to speak,” Stephanie elaborated. “Many residents are hard of hearing. I wanted them to know our heart even if they can’t hear us.” She was grateful to nurses at some facilities who, despite the cold and rigorous sanitizing procedures they had to complete before entering each room, cracked windows so residents could hear better. Because of their efforts, carolers were able to pray with many seniors, including a woman whose husband of 60-plus years had died that summer. “She said, ‘This is my first Christmas without my husband, my family, or being in my home,’” Stephanie narrated. “‘I know he’s in heaven, but it’s still hard, and I’ve been so lonely.’ Imagine what that would be like, especially in a year like 2020, when you can’t even have your family come visit? Then she looked at the 30 of us outside her window, and laughed, ‘I didn’t expect to tell you guys this today.’ I said, ‘Well, good thing you did, because here we are to listen.’ A bunch of us got to pray for her.”
A visiting family member joins in the caroling from her loved-one’s window, clapping with joy. At one point, she left briefly and returned holding up a statue of Jesus. “It’s like she was saying, ‘I’m with you! I’m a Christian, too,’” Stephanie said.
The last night was bitterly cold and windy. “It was amazing to me that people were willing to offer their time and bodies in the frigid temperatures,” Stephanie exclaimed. “They know what these people are going through is so much more difficult than caroling for a few hours. An 80-year-old man with me said, ‘Yeah, we’re worn out, but we’re not [struggling] like they are. We want to keep going.’”
Barrier or Catalyst?
Stephanie’s passion for Twilight Hope and CC Boise’s special needs ministry, which she also leads, stems from her own suffering. Mysterious health issues starting at age 19 left her completely disabled by 25. After four years mostly bed-bound, she was eventually diagnosed with Kikuchi-Fujimoto disease, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue. “I really struggled during that period,” she admitted. “I thought, This cannot be my life. Finally I surrendered fully to Jesus. He didn’t heal me, but He gave me peace.” As Stephanie delved into God’s Word, “I fell in love with Him, and He changed my whole life.” Around the same time, her grandfather moved into an eldercare facility. Stephanie visited him for four hours every evening. She elaborated, “I met his neighbors, then their neighbors; soon I was going to dinner with him and meeting his table. As I got to know them, I started realizing the hard things that were going on with my grandpa and others.”
Carolers spread out in family groups, singing in front of a couple of windows at a time. “It was a huge priority to me that everyone was safe,” Stephanie explained.
Stephanie’s health remains a struggle, but instead of allowing it to be a barrier to ministry, she made it her catalyst. “It opened my heart to the sick and dying because I’m among them,” she declared. “I’m not old yet, but I know where they are. Something I hear from them a lot, especially the men, is ‘Why am I still here?’ God has so much purpose for all of us, even when we can’t go or do as we used to. My body is broken too, but God has given me hope in it and through it. I used to feel worthless and hopeless, but now I know who I am because of Jesus. He can use me even in this body. He gives me strength when I need it. That’s why my heart has the passion it does.”
We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. Romans 5:3b-5
“Singing carols together, hearing people sing together, matters. It’s the way we were designed to worship, and how we will worship in heaven,” said volunteer Jake Alger, who leads hymnsings at the eldercare facilities in the summer. “Nurses cracked their windows so residents could hear better and communicate with their visitors from a safe distance,” he added.
All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.
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