CLEVELAND, Ohio (Mennonite Mission Network) — In the early 1980s, the neighborhood around Lee Heights Community Church faced a problem: an aging population seeking to downsize but not wanting to leave the neighborhood.
Today, 24 years after its construction, the Ministerial Alliance Retirement Center houses seniors living independently in its 80 suites. And the churches reap the benefit.
MARC, as locals call it, does not necessarily draw a flood of new worshippers to Sunday morning services at Lee Heights, but it does provide a way that the congregation can focus on its elders, according to Vern Miller, pastor emeritus.
“Seniors add maturity and breadth and scope so that at least two, maybe three generations have role models and can anticipate their autumn years,” Miller said. “As our church aged, I thought it took on a lot of character.”
Besides, he continued, the work of the church includes working with poor and rich, young and old.
“The worship and the things we do together are just filling up the gas tank and giving us inspiration to go, but the work of the kingdom, that gets done through these ministries,” he said, quoting his son, current Lee Heights pastor Robin Miller.
No one, Vern Miller said, should be forgotten.
One of the reasons Lee Heights became involved in the project was to keep from forgetting the older residents who would move away from their community. The Lee Miles Ministerial Alliance, a group of a dozen congregations from more than a half-dozen denominations, worked with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to finance the MARC, which was built in 1982 with support from Cleveland’s mayor and other area officials.
The HUD program allowed the alliance to build the apartments and rent them at a price that seniors can afford – an increasingly important part of the equation. It also serves as an area anchor.
“Now people can stay in the neighborhood and walk to church. It’s only two blocks away from four of the churches that sponsor it,” Miller said. “The churches do more than just meet and worship God. They have the people of the parish in mind.
“(The renters) are very well aware of the fact, and happy about the fact, that this is church. They think they are more secure and more among friendly, responsible people than they would be if they were renting from a for-profit organization,” Miller continued.
Lee Heights is not the only congregation caring for seniors. The Mennonite Health Service Alliance Web site lists more than 50 Mennonite-connected retirement communities or nursing homes across the United States, some of them connected to specific congregations and others simply started or run by Mennonites.
Residents feel the church support, at least at the MARC. Delores Motley, a 70-year-old woman who came to the MARC nearly three years ago, said she knew the apartment complex was different before she moved in. She needed a new apartment, one she could afford in her retirement, and chose the MARC over a newer building in her old neighborhood despite criticism from her friends.
“I don’t know why, because I didn’t know anyone here, but I just felt more comfortable here,” Motley said. “It’s just like a family gathering. We look out for each other and take care of each other.”
Motley began attending Lee Heights church about a year ago after connecting with church members during one of the programs the church hosted at MARC and through the many members who work there. (Miller said the director and more than half of the MARC staff attend the church.) Though her background is Baptist, Motley said she enjoys the Mennonites.
“Once you have the Lord in your heart, it don’t make no difference. It’s the same Jesus Christ and the people there have been very friendly,” she said.
Miller, whose wife, Helen, was administrator at the MARC for more than 20 years, said keeping seniors in the neighborhood has enriched the area, the church and his own faith experience.
“In all my life – and my wife and I have been planters at two locations in Cleveland and pastored for more than 40 years – the most significant thing that we ever did in this parish was to help to bring the MARC into existence,” Miller said.