Story Magazine - Spring/Summer, 2010

An Unconventional Classroom

by Laura Kaslow, Communication Specialist

Students Jane Harris, left, and Nile Sandeen, center, talk with resident Virginia Prest in the halls of Augustana.

This fall, three Luther Seminary students entered dorm life in a whole new way. Jane Harris, Nile Sandeen and Carl Joyner moved into apartments at Augustana Health Care Center, a senior housing facility in Minneapolis, where they are getting an immersion experience in pastoral care with the elderly. Through this partnership, the seminarians are given an inexpensive place to live and, in turn, provide spiritual care to the building's senior residents.

By living together, the students and residents are developing meaningful relationships. "I feel like I'm a part of their lives," said Harris.

A unique partnership

The idea for the partnership came from Gary Wilkerson, visiting professor of congregational care and community leadership. Wilkerson, who is also Augustana Care's board president, was intrigued by a similar program through the University of Minnesota medical school that allows students to live with Augustana residents to better understand geriatric health care needs.

"To the best of our knowledge there is not another arrangement like this in the country," said Wilkerson. "Visiting and engaging with residents on a formal and informal basis benefits the students and the facility. The students gain understanding and wisdom by living among the residents. No book is as rich as the living human documents, the residents and staff, from whom the students learn."

Harris learned about the opportunity while at a crossroads in her ministry path. "I had been debating about going into aging and health ministries, so I thought it would be interesting," she said.

Harris, who enrolled at Luther as a Master of Divinity student, is now pursuing a Master of Arts in aging and health. She has found that her experiences at Augustana build on what she's learning in the classroom.

"It's really just getting to know people in that age group," she said. "It's one thing to go visit, but I am living with them day to day, knowing their actions."

Real-world experience

Nile Sandeen calls his decision to move to Augustana "a little random and yet divine." He plans to pursue parish ministry after completing his M.Div. degree and is glad for the in-depth chaplaincy experience with an aging population.

"The reality is that congregations are getting older. Being among the elderly will be an important part of my congregational life."

The time at Augustana helps Carl Joyner better understand a population that is often neglected. An M.Div. middler, Joyner serves at Holsey Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Minneapolis in addition to his work at Augustana and his studies. Living and working with the elderly population provides Joyner with knowledge he can use in his current and future ministry settings.

"One of the things I've noticed is that the older segments of society are often sent to nursing homes. This creates a disconnect. The younger folks are missing out on what happens during that time of life. Because they miss these experiences, the young folks have little to no idea what to expect as they grow old," said Joyner.

"We need to be better connected and provide more service to the elderly to help them so we can better understand their needs. Working at Augustana has helped me see the extent of this need, especially as it relates to working with elderly in a congregation."

Hands-on care

As part of Augustana's spiritual care team, the students meet with residents in both the apartments and the care center to listen and talk about their needs and struggles.

"Realizing the maturity of faith and how much someone can learn in a lifetime--you can't learn that in a classroom," said Sandeen. "Even those so well-rounded in faith have a constant need and thirst for God."

Having additional people on the team has helped give greater presence to spiritual care services, said Augustana Chaplain Jim Meyer. "People are responding and talking. We're doing a lot of pastoral care, a lot of referrals."

In addition to their pastoral care duties, the students lead Bible studies and worship services. Meyer said worship attendance has gone up in the last year, mainly due to the fact that the students can assist the elderly population in physically getting to worship.

"It is very helpful to have the students down in the chapel. They often do the readings. They also get there early. They have been very good about getting people there and placing them. That's been a big help," said Kay Hencinski, an Augustana resident.

Because they live in the facility, the students also spend time informally socializing with the residents, including playing board games and participating in hymn sings. Having younger people around brings comfort to the residents. Virginia Prest, a resident at Augustana, said, "It's just so much fun to have young people here!"

Hencinski seconds that: "It's delightful to have someone to talk to."

"The younger presence (gives the residents) hope," said Meyer. "It is gratifying for them to see the new 'doers' coming up. It is gratifying for them to see that life, love and ministry will go on."