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The kids who pray

Grace Community Church members carry essence of Christmas through the year
Betty Gardiner, formerly of North Liberty, gets a hug from Emma Smigel and Carly Sulwer during a holiday visit by Grace Community Church members to Emerson Point Assisted Living in Iowa City Dec. 14. (photo by Lori Lindner)

CORALVILLE– They have become known as the kids who pray.
When residents at Lantern Park Nursing and Rehabilitation Center see them coming, something changes; an energy that is almost palpable suddenly fills the air.
Members of Grace Community Church in North Liberty have always done community outreach and service projects; it’s part of the church’s overall mission. But there is something a little special when a group of children and a group of aging seniors come together to share fellowship.
To further that mission, Grace Community Church has formed Daughters of the King, a group comprised of mothers and daughters, ages seven to 12 years, who make praying with others and spreading the word of God a regular, organized activity outside of their sanctuary doors.
And with their youthful, exuberant dispositions and sincerity in their faith, they also make it a whole lot of fun.
The Daughters of the King group has been visiting residents at Lantern Park for a handful of years now, often connecting their visits with a seasonal event or holiday to distribute gifts and play games. During Valentine’s Day, they’ve craft cards together; in the summer, they’ve held a combined Vacation Bible School for kids and adults to enjoy.
Other times, members of the group combine with other church members for other outreach opportunities, as they did last Saturday, Dec. 14. About 20 Grace members went to Emerson Point Assisted Living in Iowa City to sing Christmas carols, pass out homemade treats and play board games with some of the people living there.
Adult church members were on hand, but it was the interaction between the seniors and the children that seemed to sparkle; whether brought on by the season, or born of the smiles on faces and laughter in the air, it was magic.
Cindy Sulwer and daughters Carly and Megan have been part of Daughters of the King long enough that the girls have become very comfortable conversing and interacting with older adults.
“When I first did it, I felt a little uncomfortable, but now I feel okay,” said nine-year-old Carly. “I feel like they are my friends now.”
Daughters of the King participant and fifth grader Emma Smigel said she enjoys visiting with the residents, talking of God, and asking them about their own beliefs.
“I like asking what they think about it, because they might change their perspective about other people,” said Emma. “When we stay and pray with them, they seem more happy than normal. I actually invited a couple of friends to come with me. They love it.”
Cindy said the Daughters of the King have become equally comfortable in expressing their beliefs that God has a hand in everyone’s life, and His grace is there for us all.
“I always tell my kids, God is doing a million things today, and you get the honor of being part of his story,” Cindy said. “So they’ll come home and tell me about how God allowed them to be part of is story.”
It’s a mission that brings miracles the Sulwer family has witnessed more than once.
For example, Cindy said, as a result of the frequent visits to Lantern Park, some church members have unofficially adopted seniors who typically receive few visitors or who may have no friends or family close by. The Sulwers developed such relationships with two care center residents, both of whom recently passed away. But as their friend Merlin lay in bed, weak and frail in his last hours of life, Cindy played some of his favorite songs, including the hymn “In the Garden.”
“He was barely breathing, and I asked if I could read him the Bible, and as I read the verse from John 14 about Jesus going to prepare a place, he shot straight up in the bed and said, ‘Halleluiah,’ and laid back down. The power of God’s word is unbelievable,” Cindy said.
In another instance, the church group conducted a backyard Vacation Bible School at the nursing care center, which included crafts, snacks and music shared by the adults and children. Cindy and her girls helped wheeled Merlin’s friend, at that time afflicted with late-stage dementia, to the group event.
“It wasn’t an event she would normally attend because she was very low-functioning by that point. But we brought her in, and another lady who was helping just rubbed her back, and we played hymns they love, and you could just see the excitement on her face. She passed away one or two days later.”
They are the kind of everyday mysteries that can only be part of something divine, but perhaps the real miracles are found in the relationships created– whether for a year or for a single moment– between the two generations.
As the young people moved among the tables in Emerson Point’s common dining room last weekend, conversation was lively. Board games were played with zest, and whether or not all the players understood the rules was immaterial. The laughter was the real prize.
One resident asked for no less than five hugs, and was happily obliged.
That kind of meaningful touch– studied and proven to be an essential part of human well-being– is not always part of aging, as spouses pass on, friends move away, or society frowns upon adult-to-child physical contact.
“Our friend Merlin said it’s so nice to get a hug,” Cindy said. “So we always a made a point to hug and touch his hand or his shoulder, or just a simple gesture like that.”
Conversation is sometimes as difficult to come by, whether aging alone or in a facility, and having someone demonstrate genuine care can mean the difference between feeling loved and feeling inconsequential.
“Our purpose here is to bring God glory and to show people hope,” Cindy said. “The kids always end with the question, how can I pray for you today? And they will ask if they can hold their hand. It means the world to them.”
But it’s not just the older adults who benefit from the intergenerational connection.
“Once the kids get used to the residents, they look forward to seeing them,” Cindy said. “They have so many stories to tell, and so much wisdom and life, it’s just a joy. The room lights up– both ways.”
Megan Sulwer has decided, at the age of 11, that she wants to be a missionary in Africa someday. As fortune would have it, Emerson Point resident Elizabeth Barnett lived as a missionary in Africa in the 1950s. The two had a lot to talk about, and Barnett gave the young girl her best advice.
“Study real hard,” said Barnett She and her husband were featured in a book by Howard Whitman titled “Success is Within You”. In 1954, they appeared in Redbook magazine and on national television as a result of their mission work in Africa, and she was able to share with Megan some of the details of her own experiences.
“If you can get the kids past the part of being scared or nervous, it’s a beautiful thing,” said Cindy.
Grace Community Church has an open door policy and invites anyone to learn more about the church, its missions, learning opportunities and outreach.
Daughters of the King welcomes guests to join them in their activities, in spreading not just the spirit of Christmas but the message of Christ; to love one another, pray for each other, and help bring blessings to the people around them.
Carly Sulwer gets– and shares– that message, all year long.
“I think it means a lot to them,” Carly said, “when you see their faces all happy and just… joyful.”
For more information, call 319-626-2040.