Story Magazine

First Quarter, 2002

CARS program draws scholars from around the globe

by Todd Hawkins, master of divinity student

What is one of the programs Luther Seminary has that is so unique it draws people from all corners of the world? The Center for Aging, Religion and Spirituality (CARS). This year, several international students are studying in preparation for specialized ministries to older adults. Some of them found CARS the only option to pursue education for their ministry.

"No other school anywhere offered me anything in this area," said Agnes Lai-Lin Yuen, of Hong Kong. "Once I got the information and learned that there was the institute of CARS with Luther Seminary, it was very simple for me: I had to come."

Martha Baker's home is only half a country away (North Carolina) instead of half a world, but she had to come, too. Her commitment to religion and the spirituality of the aging has inspired her for 22 years. During that time, Baker worked with aging adults in several professional capacities, from retirement communities to nursing homes. She also completed her master's degree with a graduate certificate in gerontology. Her thesis was titled Toward a Generational Theory of Aging.

"When I was working on my master's degree, the only person I read was Mel Kimble," Baker recalled. "[He] was the person who was doing the majority of research on religion and aging. It's such an honor to be able to come to Luther for the CARS program."

Kimble is founder and director of the CARS. Though retired from the Luther Seminary faculty, he still teaches classes and models the commitment to ministry students of the CARS seek to develop.

Yuen, Baker and others studying at the CARS come with a strong sense of call to ministry to the aging. Sadly, they find it is often overlooked. "In my church, I think it's like a group that's forgotten," Esther Sonderegger Lonmo said of older adults. "It's almost like they are gone before they're gone. In the church we haven't got a concept about how to minister to them."

A pastor of the Norwegian Lutheran Church since 1983, Sonderegger Lonmo hopes to change that. "For many years I have been increasingly concerned about how to minister to older adults, especially the ones I meet in nursing homes," she said. "How do we best minister in a way that responds to their life situation and spiritual need?"

The void Sonderegger Lonmo identified is filled by CARS. Since 1993, it has helped equip students for creative and responsible leadership roles in ministry with aging people. The CARS curriculum includes course work and supervised experiences working with older adults. Courses cover topics including aging around the world, mental health and the aging, biblical and theological perspectives on aging and spiritual development. The center also brings students into hospices, geriatric centers and church-related social agencies that work with the aging. An approved non-profit organization, CARS provides education, facilitates research and encourages publication on topics relating to the spirit life of older adults.

"It presents a very practical theology," said Iceland native Vigfus B. Albertsson.

Students at CARS bring diverse backgrounds, yet they share a common commitment to ministry with aging adults. They also understand the present and future need for such ministry.

"I'm keenly aware that the church needs to be prepared for the onslaught of boomers. And we're not," Baker commented.

Demographic trends support Baker's claim. In 1900, four percent of the population was over the age of 65. Presently, almost 13 percent of the population is over 65, and that number is expected to grow to 20 percent by the year 2030. The implications on the church are many, affecting programs offered, church finances and the very nature of Christian communities.

"The situation in Hong Kong is very similar," Yuen said. "It's worldwide."

"We've dealt with the aging in terms of medical and social needs, but we have not addressed the inner life of persons," Baker said. "We have not addressed their spirituality."

Students of the CARS are hopeful that their efforts will be multiplied in the parishes they serve. "I would like to gain enough expertise to be able to pass on knowledge to others in the church; staff and volunteers," Sonderegger Lonmo said. "I'd like to be one of the people advocating this kind of ministry in our congregations."

CARS courses are available to students in all degree programs at Luther Seminary: M.A., M.Div., D.Min., M.Th. and Ph.D. For more information, visit www.luthersem.edu

You may also contact the CARS c/o Luther Seminary, 2481 Como Ave., St. Paul, MN 55108, or send e-mail requests to cars@luthersem.edu