The power of hymns.

The highlight of my week is visiting the Bulkley Lodge, a total-care public nursing home in Smithers, B.C. I arrive just as the residents are finishing their lunches. First order of business? Walking from table to table and greeting everyone. Then the recreational department staff hands out song books, I take to the piano and we sing about 30 songs together.  

There are a few hymns, but most of the songs are simply oldies like “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” “Five Foot Two.” The staff and I tried to add some songs from the ‘60s but they were mostly a failure – too new. I can’t remember why I started visiting the Lodge, but I did have good examples from my childhood: as public school students we performed music at the “mental hospital” as part of our educational program and our church led a worship service there several times per year. 

Currently, various Christian congregations take turns leading worship services on Sunday afternoons. These are very poorly attended. Often it is the pastor or other leader who reads a devotional message; a piano player and at most a handful of congregants show up. 

I suppose one could say that my Wednesday visits are a ministry. I’m not so sure that is the right word, however. People feel a “call to ministry,” they “enter the ministry,” and they “sign up for a ministry” in their local congregation. Listen to these lyrics from “I Am the Light of the World” by Jim Strathdee, which we sang in worship this Epiphany season. 

“I am the light of the world! […] If you follow and love, you’ll learn the mystery of what you were meant to do and be.” 

“When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and the shepherds have found their way home, the work of Christmas is begun.”

“To find the lost and lonely one, to heal the broken soul with love, to feed the hungry children with warmth and good food, to feel the earth below, the sky above!”

This song, with its lively, accessible tune, speaks to me quite powerfully. All those years when I didn’t visit shut-ins as often as I went trout fishing, all those years when I had seemingly forgotten my early training in elementary school and church, all those years when I found Sunday afternoon football more important than a half-hour spent with the residents of the Bulkley Lodge . . . it was not that I hadn’t “done ministry.” Maybe it was more that I was having an identity crisis. Finding the lost and lonely ones is, I have come to believe, not a ministry but a mark of who I was “meant to do and be.” 

In the eyes of some people, my Christian identity consists of Sunday worship. For the people of the Bulkley Lodge in Smithers, B.C., I think it exists not in the few hymns we sing on Wednesday, nor in my occasional reference to church, but in being there to sing songs so old that they were hits before the residents were born; singing light, fluffy or hopelessly ironic songs (“Don’t Fence Me In” for shut-ins); singing with and to the residents; singing in our unprofessional, hoarse voices. My Christian identity is in being there, blessing and being blessed by people with dementia, deafness (that helps) or immobility.

In a recent CC article, Mark Vander Vennen says that providing support for the mentally ill, and by extension to all those experiencing infirmity, is “core to the calling of the church in the 21st century.” It is who we are. 


  • Curt Gesch and his wife lead the singing via Zoom for a combined service of small United Church congregations in central B.C. each Sunday morning. In the afternoon, they lead a Friends and Family Zoom worship from their home. If you'd like to join that service, please write Curt at moc.liamg@36hcsegc.

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