By Cheryl Denley
Special to the Advocate
It’s Sunday morning and residents of the General Hilton R. (Jack) Vance Mississippi State Veterans Home, are going to church.
They are honorary members of Wells Memorial United Methodist Church, although, the majority of them have never stepped foot inside the walls of the church. Their service is a part of the outreach of Wells that had served a need for over 10 years.
On this particular morning, 38 people are present. Shortly before 10 a.m., they begin to gather, the ones who are able walk take their place in the pews in the chapel. Wheelchairs come rolling in, some with the assistance of family members and staff, and take their place on the right hand side of the sanctuary, where there are no pews.
They are greeted by their lay ministers-worship leaders, Bill and Brenda Duckworth, members of Wells UMC. The Duckworths are certified lay speakers and the West Jackson District directors of Lay Speaking Ministries of the Mississippi Annual Conference. They greet each resident as they enter the chapel and ask about their health, their families and it is apparent, Bill and Brenda know these people, love these people and pray regularly for these people.
The Duckworths come directly from the worship service at 8:30 a.m. of Wells. They say they feel completely supported by their church family. Wells stands ready to provide whatever they need to make the worship experience complete for these men and women who have served our country. Large print editions of The Upper Room are available for all residents, compliments of Wells Memorial UMC. The Duckworths report monthly to the church council of their church, keeping the membership informed about the outreach ministry.
Brenda Duckworth — a homemaker who is a former music teacher, former aerobics instructor and former missionary to South Africa — shares her musical talent on the keyboard, guitar and accordion with the congregation. On this particular morning, she played “Name That Tune” with those gathered. As she played familiar hymns, the residents were invited to guess what she was playing. The majority of the crowd whispered every word as she played and shouted out the hymn title at the conclusion of her playing. Hymnals are available for the worship time, but really not necessary. The faithful knew every word and sang with enthusiasm. There was great excitement as Brenda Duckworth brought out the instruments and asked those who wanted to play this morning to raise their hands for an instrument. Many hands went up as Bill Duckworth passed out maracas, finger drums and the crowd favorite, the thunder drum. The residents were invited to play with gusto during the morning praise chorus of “we will praise the Lord with our instruments.”
Bill Duckworth, an employee of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, shared a message titled “Sleep Walking through Life,” using object lessons of pillows. He opened worship for the morning with a devotional reflection, “When Trust Fails.” He prefaces each hymn selection with facts about the hymn’s writer. As the residents responsively read the mornings scripture, Bill Duckworth urged them to “guess” the concept of faith he would be lifting up on that morning. The sharp group of participants got it right — obedience.
The Duckworths work together to intertwine the music and message. Preparation for the weekly service begins on Monday. In addition to Sunday mornings, the Duckworths come to the home on Saturdays to set up their instruments and make sure all is ready for the next day.
The Duckworths get close to those who join them on Sunday mornings. They say they are humbled that this ministry allows them to serve in such a capacity. They are their pastors for many of the residents. Budget restraints make it impossible to have a fulltime or part-time chaplain at this facility. The couple holds a Good Friday service, a Christmas service and a memorial service every four months and urges families to participate. The regular Sunday morning service sponsored by this United Methodist congregation allows spouses and children to worship together. The Duckworths have been asked to participate in funeral services of those who have passed away at the facility. Communion is served on a regular basis. Residents often support financially the mission and ministries of Wells Memorial UMC. On this Sunday, a man gave a check to the food pantry of the church, sharing his memory of hard times and expressed his desire to help someone in need. The service enabled this veteran to worship God through giving.
The closing chorus seemed to sum up how participants feel about the services:
I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God,
I’ve been washed in the fountain,
Cleansed by his blood,
Joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod,
We’re a part of the family, the family of God!