Gary and I are treated like senor citizens at times. It’s really rather silly. AARP has given up on us, so we don’t get many of their mailings anymore. However, we can sometimes wrangle a few dollars off a movie or a race. When the demands of ministry tax our mental, physical, and emotional health, we sometimes fantasize about retirement and yearn for the freedom to read a book for pleasure, travel to see our grandson on a whim, or play a round of golf whenever we want.
Then I get to thinking about a neighbor who retired in her 50’s, is bored stiff, and has little meaning in her life, and it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to respond, “But why would I possibly want to retire? I’m just hitting my stride! The call to ministry is as strong as ever, and as long as the fields are still ripe for the harvest, I’m going to be out there sowing seeds and reaping the kingdom of God.” During the month of May, which is the U.S. Administration on Aging’s Older Americans Month and Older Adult Month in The United Methodist Church, we are reminded that older adults have much to contribute to our church and world.
Then again, the retirement meccas of Florida and Arizona are enticing, aren’t they? Take The Villages in central Florida, for example. I heard rave reviews about The Villages a few years ago from my parents, who stayed there for a week visiting friends. Did you know that The Villages is now a city of senior citizens, which exploded from 8,000 residents in 2000 to 80,000 residents in 2010?
The Villages is the premier age-segregated community in the world.
- No children under 19 are allowed to live at The Villages. They can visit but must leave after 3 weeks.
- One person over age 55 is required to live in each household.
- There are 486 holes of golf at The Villages, with 9,000 tee times every day.
- Everything you need for living is at your fingertips: doctors, therapists, restaurants, grocery stores, churches, bingo, dancing, bowling. You never even have to leave The Villages!!
- You don’t need a car: custom-design your own golf cart, and it can take you everywhere.
- The Villages has its own newspaper and radio station, which plays … you guessed it … oldies.
As the ads remind us, The Villages is a little slice of paradise, a permanent vacation. No crying babies, no toddlers throwing fits, no recalcitrant teenagers. You don’t have to drive through the dangerous parts of the city, see homeless people living under the overpass, or walk by poor people asking for a handout. Almost everyone is white, and leisure is the name of the game.
As you might imagine, The Villages does need younger people to serve them as doctors, clerks, restaurant servers, maintenance workers, and grounds crews. In fact, The Villages even has a few schools since Florida allows employers to sponsor workplace charter schools. Of course, families are not allowed to live in The Villages, but the kids can go to school there if their parents are employees.
It’s all very convenient and idyllic. You’re removed from “real life” but are kept too busy with activities to realize it. As National Public Radio reported last year, it’s kind of like Leave It To Beaver without Beaver.
Is there anything amiss with this picture? Did God mean for humans to live in a manufactured city with a manufactured history, a manufactured downtown, and a manufactured government? Is it fair for one city to have so many residents that it outnumbers the rest of its rural Florida county and controls every election?
Where are the bikes parked in the driveway, swing sets and plastic pools in the backyard, and tractors in the fields? Where is the irritation of teenagers causing a ruckus, the discomfort of multiculturalism, and the complexity of various ethnic groups attempting to live side by side and respect each other’s traditions? Is it even possible for our lives to be whole when we are not surrounded by the magnificent fullness of God’s created people?
Most horrifying to me is the realization that some of our United Methodist churches are just like The Villages. Let me tell you about “The Village”United Methodist Church. There are no children in this church, which suits the adults just fine. Oh, an occasional grandchild shows up, which is okay because they are “just visiting.” In The Village UMC, no one ever spills red juice on the carpet. No one has to yell at kids running in the sanctuary, warn teens to turn down the Christian rock, or compromise over worship styles. Potlucks, bridge clubs, bingo, book clubs, and afternoon teas rule. They never have to fix up the nursery and hire an attendant because they are not expecting or seeking younger company. If the truth be known, they have no desire to grow.
Just like The Villages, everything at The Village United Methodist church is … well… perfect. Because this congregation gives subtle signals that people who are not like them are not welcome, the building and its parishioners remain sanitary, pleasant, not banged up, and, dare I say, removed from reality.
Fortunately, there are many more United Methodist churches which do value diversity and understand that in our difference is blessing. They throw open their doors to people who have different viewpoints, live in different places, come from different backgrounds and cultures, and dress, talk and look different. But more than that, these churches throw open their doors and go out into their communities to practice mercy and do justice without regard to race, ethnicity, language, age, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. They especially rely on senior citizens as prized volunteers.
These churches believe that the number of people they serve outside the church is more important then serving themselves; that encouraging outside groups to use their facility is being more faithful than having a spotless museum for a building; that babies’ cries are more pleasing than singing their favorite hymns; and that listening to a teenager witness to the spiritual impact of a mission trip not only glorifies God but challenges them to consider that youth have much to teach adults.
As the African proverb goes, it takes a village to raise a child. Even The Village UMC can raise a child if they choose to. The Villages in Florida can raise a child as well – if they have a United Methodist Church, which they do. On December 1, 1999, a United Methodist pastor was appointed to start a new church in The Villages. Attendance at New Covenant UMC now tops 1,800 every weekend. Most gratifying is that this congregation intentionally ministers to all people, not just the senior citizens who live in The Villages. The vision statement of New Covenant UMC says, “We are a large, dynamic, multicultural, intergenerational congregation growing in our relationships with one another and Jesus Christ to be his hands and feet in the world.”
God loves differences. That’s why differences are built into the fabric of the created order. Jesus loved differences. That’s why he welcomed children, tax collectors, sinners, women, and outcasts to be part of God’s kingdom. John Wesley loved differences. That’s why he moved his ministry outside the Anglican Church in order to preach in the mines, the prisons, the slums, and the factories. The United Methodist Church loves differences. That’s why the section called “Our Theological Task” in The Book of Discipline 2008 says, “In our diversity, we are held together by a shared inheritance and a common desire to participate in the creative and redemptive activity of God.”
I’m not sure where Gary and I will live when we retire. Will it be The Villages? I seriously doubt it. But I do know this: we will live in a village, a little slice of paradise which loves differences and nurtures all people, from the child, to the stranger, to the elderly, to the down and out. We will also be part of a village church, another slice of paradise which reaches out beyond its walls and praises one Giver, one Lord, one Spirit, and One Word known in many ways. For the Giver, for the gifts, praise, praise, praise!