BY READING THE BIBLE ALOUD IN GROUPS SLOWLY, THOUGHTFULLY AND WITH IMAGINATION, OLDER PEOPLE ARE ENCOUNTERING JESUS FOR THE FIRST TIME
Since 2017 Missionary Paul Chierico has been leading a simple practice at The Elms residential care centre. Each week for 45 minutes he gathers a small group of residents – between four and eight, and they sit and slowly read the Bible together, and pray for family and friends. They’ve been reading through the gospels and have just arrived at the end of the Gospel According to John.
This style of reading is not just reading aloud and reading slowly, says Paul. It’s about imaginatively getting inside the stories.
‘We see what it was like to encounter Jesus and explore those interchanges with people. And then we simply let those words quicken people’s hearts.’
For example, in the story of the feeding of the 5,000 the disciples’ instincts are to dismiss the hungry crowd. But Jesus turns to Philip saying: ‘You feed them.’ He asks this knowing what he was going to do next.
The group imagines themselves standing with Jesus. ‘You know what God is going to do,’ Paul tells them with a twinkle. ‘You know what’s going to happen. Now, could you keep a straight face while Jesus is asking Philip this?’
A number of the residents are going through the stages of dementia. Conversations that depend on memory recollection can be distressing: they know that they should be able to call up incidents from the past, but the memories are clouded or inaccessible. It emphasises what has been lost and cannot be recovered.
At the same time Paul has found that if he poses imaginative or emotional questions such as, ‘what tone do you think Jesus said this in?’ for some reason, they can respond.
Reading the Bible in a way that highlights the relational and emotional can be a revelation. Members of the group imagine themselves in the scene and can show what they are feeling in the moment.
Reading aloud works on other levels too for people with dementia, says Paul. ‘It takes them back to feeling they had when they were reading to their children, or even when they themselves were being read to by their parents.
‘This feels assuring and comfortable, there’s a sense of calm that this feels good and comforting.’
Going through each gospel scene by scene brings up hard and challenging material as well as the comforting, and that takes care, says Paul. ‘When we came to the passage where Jesus is handed over to Pilate. I said – now we know that in a few hours Jesus will say ‘forgive them’.
‘Then, as we got to the the scourging, I asked, “What do you think Jesus’ demeanour was as he endured all this? Did he curse the soldiers? Did he duck and dive the blows? Or did he just absorb it?” In everything we turn the spotlight on the person and character of Jesus.’
A few months ago, the group read the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman beside Jacob’s well.
In the group was a woman from a nominally Christian background. When posed the question, ‘What do you think this felt like, with Jesus’ attention on her?’ she started crying – she was really moved.
The reason she was so deeply affected was that she saw some of the love of Jesus for this woman, says Paul.
‘She’s been a resident at The Elms for a few years, and on that day something moved deep inside her. I’m convinced that this was the moment that she first had a real encounter with Jesus.’
She has early onset dementia. Since then, she prays aloud in the Bible study time on Tuesday afternoons, something she never did before. ‘She came to the Lord that day. Simply, that day she fell in love with Jesus.’
Reading slowly gives people time to absorb themselves into the scene. When people read these stories from the inside, it transforms them. ‘It’s amazing transformational stuff, and I’m so blessed and grateful to be a part of it.’