Love Your Neighbor

Love Your Neighbor

Seniors find a family-like environment when they come to Bethlehem Senior Center, part of Wesley Community Centers, Inc., in Atlanta, Ga. For more than 100 years, Wesley Community Centers, a United Methodist Women-supported national mission institution, has fulfilled Christ’s mission to love and serve its neighbor. Women from 10 Methodist congregations began the century-long tradition of Wesley Community Centers, identifying human need and responding with heartfelt commitment.

Wesley Community Centers originally began as Wesley Community House in 1902, serving children whose parents worked in the cotton mills near historic Cabbagetown. As U.S. history and social issues changed, Wesley Community House’s outreach shifted with the times, refocusing its mission activities to address the needs of seniors as well as young people.

In 1928, Wesley Community House relocated to the area that is now within the shadows of the Atlanta Brave’s baseball stadium. Its outreach programs expanded in 1944 to include a summer camp. Camp Wesley offered camping, learning and fellowshipping to children and adolescents who had no other way to attend camp.

Likewise, in a segregated society, a similar organization called Bethlehem Center was formed in South Atlanta in 1944 to provide day care for mothers in the workforce. Bethlehem Center also expanded to provide youth programs and social services. The Wesley Community House and Bethlehem Center duplicated services along racial lines.

After Atlanta elected its first African- American mayor, Maynard Jackson, and under the leadership of United Methodist Women predecessors, Bethlehem Center and Wesley Community House merged in 1967 to form one of the first racially integrated private social service centers. The result was Wesley Community Centers, Inc. The center’s long history and commitment to women, children and youth make it the oldest social service center in Atlanta and one of the first centers in the country to serve seniors.

Joy Magnus, the executive director of Wesley Community Centers, indicated its three primary programs are Bethlehem Senior Center, Camp Wesley and Project Extend, which provides home repair services to low-income senior and disabled homeowners. “Although both Bethlehem Senior Center and Project Extend work with seniors, we provide multi-generational experiences when students from nearby Carver Homes Schools visit every holiday and perform poetry, dance or prepare a banquet for the seniors,” she said.

“The vision to serve seniors arose out of a need for low-income women to get out of their homes and participate in activities once they retired, plus to keep seniors connected to social services,” said Margaret Hoard, director of Bethlehem Senior Center.

Tryphenia Sneed, Wesley Community Center’s board of directors president, said, “There is Mrs. Annie Stadium, 90, who has been attending senior programs for 30 years. I believe coming to the center for so long contributes to her longevity.”

Gloria Martin is the social services coordinator for the center. Like a one-woman army she truly gives feet to the church, dealing with an array of human need. “In order to serve those seniors who can’t come to the center, we have a Homebound Program,” she said. “I see on a continuous basis 20 seniors and connect hundreds with services, such as Meals-on-Wheels, pay their utilities, complete veteran’s benefits forms, prepare applications for social services. You name it — we do it.”

A place to pray and sing

It’s a busy day of activities at Bethlehem Senior Center, starting with morning devotion led by Willie Thorton. More than 20 seniors are carrying a tune to the words, “Angels in Heaven have called my name,” over-and-over. It sounds like a small country church. In the open community room, they are praising the Lord and swaying to the melody.

Ms. Thorton has pepper gray hair and two large corn-rolled braids, and it is obvious that she is in control as her head moves to the beat. She is their volunteer leader in the absence of a volunteer minister, who usually leads Bible study. Their system of who leads Bible study is who starts singing or talking first.

The seniors’ ability to freely praise the Lord and the group’s cohesiveness are the hallmarks of Bethlehem Senior Center as told by Luscious Rakestraw, 70, retired since 1999. He chooses to attend Bethlehem Senior Center because it “has more love, friendly wholesomeness and is the best place for seniors.” Wearing a baseball cap, he’s comfortable telling his story. “I [have] been to all the centers, checked them all out. It’s the only one where you can pray and sing: the things we want to do.”

Mr. Rakestraw makes note of the center being in a historic neighborhood. He is purchasing a home a few blocks away, within walking distance, and said, “Many folks don’t know Bethlehem sits in a historic area where the 1909 race riots in Atlanta started. Right here. We sit in the center of it.” It’s apparent that others at his table agree and are proud to attend programs at Bethlehem Senior Center.

“The center is responsible for me being a homeowner again,” he said. “A Project Extend speaker at the center motivated me that I could get my own house. Project Extend coordinates with people all over the country who come here during the summer to do work on homes, hold workshops and perform projects that give us different skills to do some minor repairs on our own, like simple plumbing.”

Mr. Rakestraw has made an application for assistance on his new house, and he feels confident that after going to the center he has networked with other seniors outside of the center’s usual hours to never be lonely. “Most of us have become friends after meeting and coming to the center.”

Healthy living

As soon as Bible study ends, the seniors go straight into chair yoga for their daily exercise. With arms out like cheerleaders spelling “V” for victory, the women mostly participate, moving to slow music. The men separate themselves to a back table near the kitchen with easy access to the treadmill and stationery bicycle, which are their choices for exercise.

Delores Wallace is part of the class. She has been coming to the center for nine years. “Coming here inspires my life,” she said. “We can express ourselves, share problems and pray together ... for the sick.” Ms. Wallace became acquainted with the center while at DeKalb Farmer’s Market.

“I saw seniors loading up on the center’s bus,” she said. “I wanted to know how I could become involved with the center. I had recently retired and didn’t know what to do with myself.

“Bethlehem was a perfect fit. It is close to my neighborhood, and the bus could pick me up to enjoy crafts like jewelry making; play games, including Bingo; use the computers; learn keyboard; get my blood pressure checked or see a nurse if needed; and take trips out to eat and shop.”

Ms. Wallace ended with a long laugh and disclosed the center’s “Bingo punishment.” Bingo is very competitive, and when it gets too serious, it’s shut down for a month. “Yeah, we get a little too excited sometimes,” she said. “Bingo is fun.”

Ms. Wallace likes to show off repairs that Project Extend volunteers have made to her kitchen. “They fixed my floor and put in a new sink and countertop because a leak had ruined them. They did a good job. That was a big help to me,” Ms. Wallace explained while eating a hot lunch, which is served daily at the center.

Volunteers staff the kitchen. “Until recently 100-year-old Geneva Harris had insisted on being in the kitchen,” Ms. Hoard said. “She started coming 45 years ago when her sister was ill. Bringing her sister to Bethlehem was a way to get her sister out of the house. But she saw the need for help in the kitchen and became ‘it’ for 45 years, until her doctor made her stop at age 99.”

The staff makes it clear the seniors are a lot like family at the center. Ms. Hoard recalled when one of the center’s attendees passed away while she was on vacation. Another senior tracked her down in California to tell her. Grateful, Ms. Hoard changed her flight to return in time for the funeral.

Ms. Hoard fondly speaks of 103- year-old Johnnie Bell Craig, who has been coming to the center for more than 25 years. “Ms. Craig was in the hospital, but when she was getting dressed to go home, she wanted her daughter to take her to Bethlehem Senior Center because she said, ‘They have good clean fun.’”

Betty L. Bush is an author, attorney and creative writing professor. She serves on the North Georgia Conference United Methodist Women and her local United Methodist Women at Central United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Ga.

Posted or updated: 6/30/2010 11:00:00 PM