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The link can be a cookie and fruit-filled basket. Or, a videotape of a Sunday Mass. Even a church member stopping in after the Sunday service.

In all sorts of ways, churches are taking care of the members who are unable to attend services. And, given this area's aging population, there's an increasing need to reach beyond the church walls to those who may, in fact, have helped build those walls.

Churches often use obvious and sometimes creative ways to nurture this bond of faith and fellowship.

"We have an obligation to let members know they are still part of the congregation," said Susan Owens of Kenmore United Methodist Church. "It's a bright moment in their day."

At Kenmore United, worshippers sometimes arrive at church on Sunday with a Bible in one hand and a casserole dish in the other.

They are helping to keep a freezer filled with home-cooked lasagna, beef stew, vegetables and desserts. When they hear of someone in need, they deliver a meal in a disposable container that's been labeled with ingredients and directions for heating.

Besides that, the church's Samaritan Ministry delivers 30 to 40 treat-filled baskets to shut-ins on holidays and frequently sends cards to say: "Thinking of you, sorry you can't be at church."

Sometimes it takes an effort, but it's an effort that's rewarded.

"You might feel a little resistant and you might have other obligations, but once you are there, you are so glad and can't imagine why you wouldn't want to," said Mark Pearce, a licensed lay eucharistic minister who takes communion to members of St. Philip's Episcopal Church, which is near the Erie County Medical Center.

He conducts "a sort of miniature service" in their homes. "We pray with them and summarize the word," he said. "That requires us to pay attention during the sermon, which is kind of good for us. It's transforming because what we get out of the service becomes reinforced in our hearts."

At St. Gregory the Great, a large, active Amherst parish, introduced "Bridging the Generational Gap" this month, a program designed to connect an elderly parishioner to a "host family."

"For a lot of the older people, this is what their life is all about, their religion," said Meegan Stamm, one of the coordinators. "A loving and kind parish helps those who need it.

"We want the elderly to be comfortable because they have a certain amount of pride about accepting help," Stamm added. And, they assure host families that they can be as involved as they choose to be.

"They don't have to be there every week," she said. "If the person has nothing in their life now, this is certainly a step forward to have some attention."

It sounds similar to "God's Unfinished Business," a new effort at Temple Beth Zion with approximately 100 volunteers.

"We have dozens of people in nursing homes and probably dozens more who are relatively homebound," said senior rabbi Harry L. Rosenfeld.

"It's more than any clergy can do and it's about the congregation as much as the clergy," said Rosenfeld, who uses his computer's automatic reminder to call individuals. "We believe that our congregation is a community and members need to be in touch because they care about each other." Some churches hire staff to keep in touch with those who are incapacitated. Among them is Sister Barbara Bogden, a Franciscan Missionary Sister of the Divine Child, who's warmly welcomed after years of making rounds.

"They are always feeding me, lunch or supper," said Bogden. In turn she offers them spiritual sustenance: "I want to help people realize that our lord loves them and give witness that Jesus is present in their lives."

At St. John the Baptist in the Town of Tonawanda, Nora Scaglione works as minister to the sick where she and 18 volunteers visit more than 100 people. On her visits, she brings along photographs of construction projects or school field trips, and, sometimes, one or more of her four young children. "The church is your big family," said Scaglione. "I let people know that they aren't alone at a time when they may feel alone."

Some churches incorporate technology to reach out and touch the lives of members. Temple Beth Zion offers CDs so that members can listen to the service and there are plans in the works for videotaping services.

That's also being done at St. Albert the Great in North Tonawanda, where videotapes of Sunday Masses can be borrowed by parishioners.

"I think if St. Paul were alive, he'd have his own video studio," said the pastor, Monsignor Edward T. Fisher. "With the number of priests diminishing we have to use the best ways we can."

Fisher also celebrates Mass weekly at the Northgate Nursing Home and for senior residents of the Carousel Apartments. "The older people supported the church when they were younger and it would be a shame if they got dropped," he said. "It means a lot to them and we have to meet them in their territory."

Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church also is up-to-date in its approach, taping two weeks of services on audiotapes that are sent to homebound members. Besides that, the names and addresses of anyone who is sick are printed on cards that are passed out to those who want to send get well greetings. "I probably got 50 cards when I was sick a few years ago," said Diane Marchese, church receptionist. Besides that, the church's Touch Ministry sent meals over to her. "And they really do meals," she said. "My husband asked if we could keep getting them."

After a life of involvement, those who can't participate any longer in church activities often feel unneeded.

"Ministry of Praise" is a national program that operates in area churches by enlisting homebound people to pray for monthly intentions.

About 20 years ago, Dolores Kurzdorfer started "Ministry of Praise" at St. Leo the Great Church in Amherst, after going on Communion visits.

"Sometimes you got there and they'd be OK," she said, "but other times they'd be lonely and crying. They didn't feel like they were part of anything. They can't do the lawn fetes or bingo any more. This is to make them feel they are of use. They pray for the intentions of the world, the country, the parish, for the kids who were confirmed, for people in the military, for peace, for respect for life."

Each month, a letter is sent to between 80 and 100 people in the parish to let them know the monthly intentions. "It kind of lets them know that they count," said Kurzdorfer.

In her encounters, Sister Barbara Bogden conveys the same message when she hears people say they feel useless.

"They don't realize how they help us," Bogden said. "Some are so beautiful in their acceptance of the illness. I want them to know we're all connected. We're just all connected, no matter what."


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