By Brett Hetherington*
In May I had the pleasure of spending time with the Rev. Betsy Schenk as she and volunteers from Amboy United Methodist Church (Western Reserve District) served food to long-haul truck drivers. Schenk is also a licensed chemical dependency counselor and spends much of her time serving the patients of Glenbeigh Recovery Hospital in Rock Creek, Ohio. Many of these patients were greatly impacted when the State of Ohio instituted the stay at home order to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Glenbeigh specializes in addiction recovery. Most of the patients enrolled in its program are not there by choice, and their first few days in the building are very difficult. Prior to the pandemic reaching American shores, families could visit on Sundays, and patients were permitted to leave the facility to attend church services at local churches on Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings. Sadly, the sense of isolation has only increased for patients as those connections have been eliminated out of necessity for safety, both for the patient as well as their families and the surrounding community.
“I have been associated with Glenbeigh for more than 38 years,” shared Schenk. “My contact began when I served as a member of the Impaired Nurse Committee of the Ohio Nurses Association. That program is now with the State Board of Nursing. For a time, I was the director of nursing at the west side Glenbeigh, which was a 100-bed facility with 75 adolescent beds and 25 adult beds. My call to ministry was a direct result of my own recovery and working a 12-step program. I remained a volunteer at the facility, doing volunteer pastoral counseling, until my retirement from full-time ministry in 2014. At that time, I was asked to come on as an independent contractor, which I remain.”
Schenk continued, “My time with one-on-one counseling has increased because of the fear and the spiritual hunger found in the patients. Last month I was a part of 144 individual counseling sessions.”
It is this spiritual hunger that has led to Schenk being permitted to host a satellite church service in the lecture hall of the main building on the grounds of Glenbeigh. “We consistently get between 35 and 50 at the service. A patient told me today that during the singing last Saturday she surrendered to her disease of alcoholism for the first time.”
The service itself is rather simple and straightforward. Music lyric videos are streamed from YouTube starting around 6:05 p.m. as the women find their seats and the men finish their dinner in the cafeteria. At around 6:15 p.m. the service formally starts with a welcome and more music that has been largely requested by patients. Schenk takes prayer requests, offers a prayer, and then shares a sermon based in Scripture, encouraging the small congregation. On the night that I attended the service, a video was played that showed Susan Boyle’s judge-impressing performance on Britain’s Got Talent. In showing the video, Schenk was reminding group members that no one can tell them who they are, or that they are less than they are and are only their addiction. God loves them and only He can give them their value.
Schenk told me that prior to this satellite service being offered, perhaps 10 or 11 patients might travel out to a church on a weekend to take part in a service. “For many years I prayed for a spiritual renewal at Glenbeigh, which is a secular nonprofit facility of 175 plus beds. Slowly changes have been made. It began with a Christmas Eve service about five years ago. This past year I distributed ashes for Ash Wednesday.”
The global COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a small sense of spiritual renewal in the lives of more patients. Many are seeing the need for God in their lives, perhaps for the first time.
“I have become more involved in lecturing and in leading patient therapy groups. I see patients for a variety of reasons that include grief, spiritual guidance, spirituality, anger and resentments, sexual identity, and hope. I routinely lend my hope to some of the patients,” Schenk said.
Some of those patients who have been impacted through this satellite service shared their story with Schenk, who passed them on to me.
Patient A is a 26-year-old man. He was raised in the church but turned away in high school and college. This is his first time in dependency treatment. He felt unworthy of God’s love because of some issues in his life that he felt God would never forgive him for. During his second time attending the service he felt like he belonged in the church setting for the first time. He was a regular attender until he was discharged from the recovery program.
Patient B is a 48-year-old woman who professes to have been born-again at one point in her life. As a result of her drinking she turned away from God and just could not surrender to Him because of her tremendous guilt. Two weeks ago at church, she cried through the whole service, and was finally able to surrender during a special song. She shared with Schenk after the service that she was totally different as a result of that experience.
Patient C is a 55-year-old man who is a regular church attender. He felt that the service was a safe place for him during a time of some hard looking at himself.
Patient D is a 50-year-old woman who not only has the disease of alcoholism but is also fighting stage four cancer. For her the service is a lifeline to hope. She has a home church and a bible Study waiting for her in the state she lives in that she can return to when she is discharged.
I asked Schenk if there were other ways that the pandemic has impacted her ministry at Glenbeigh. “We have seen a direct correlation between the pandemic and our admissions to the facility. We now are admitting up to 10 patients a day. But families are still not able to visit or to participate in face-to-face family sessions. They are done on Zoom. I have also found a more significant role in supporting the other staff members at the facility. Three of us, myself and two other counselors, take turns throughout the week sending out daily prayers to the entire staff at Glenbeigh and to all the outpatient centers. In addition, we hold a time of prayer each morning.”
Schenk sees the work she and others at Glenbeigh do as vital. She personally has had the opportunity of leading many patients to Christ. “About 50% of the patients I see for spirituality and spiritual guidance are non-believers at the beginning of their stays. What a joy to see many of them turn to Jesus and God during their time in treatment,” she shared with me. This treatment facility and this service are reaching further outside the walls than even just Ohio. In the past week Schenk has seen patients from Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, California and even the Virgin Islands!
I asked Schenk if the church service will be permitted to continue when the pandemic ends. She believes that it will continue, referring back to special Christmas and Easter services that were held in the past that drew large audiences also considering the positive impact that the service has continued to have over the past few months.
In reflecting upon the service, Schenk was reminded of one gentleman in particular. “We keep the doors of the lecture hall open so that patients passing by can hear the music. One man stopped by the door and heard a song that he had not heard in 30 years. He came in and felt a peace that he had not been able to achieve until that point in his life.”
All because God continues to care for and love us every day.
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.