GODLY PLAY™ is an imaginative, Montessori-based approach to religious formation developed by the Rev. Dr. Jerome W. Berryman and used by many faith groups around the world. It is a creative and playful way of bringing stories of faith to life on an experiential level. It uses two and three dimensional figures to tell the story in a vivid way and then invites – through wondering questions - engagement with the story. Traditionally, this method is used in the faith formation process of children.
In 2015 Lois Howard wrote an inspiring booklet “Using Godly Play with Alzheimer’s and Dementia Patients”. In it she outlined her experience of using this method since 2006 in Lexington, Kentucky. Her writing inspired chaplains at Ebenezer to follow in her footsteps. In March and April of 2018, our team (including chaplains in training) engaged in two days of hands-on training in Godly Play with Minneapolis Godly Play trainer Susan Mallison. Her enthusiasm and curiosity about bringing stories alive with older adults in varying stages of dementia was instrumental to our success. Another amazing supporter is Jon Lundberg, President of Ebenezer and Fairview Post-Acute Care. An avid woodworker, he created several wooden figurines that are being used in the process of telling Sacred Stories. We are also very grateful to all donors who through Ebenezer’s Foundation generously supported this project.
We decided that our goal was not to help participants remember the stories but to facilitate a way for each person to connect with the Sacred while also being in community with each other. Our context in larger long term and senior care settings in Minnesota is one of growing cultural and religious diversity. We wanted to create a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for everyone while drawing on different sacred stories. We called it “Sacred Story.” What we discovered continues to amaze us.
Initially we anticipated 4-6 people would come and listen to the story and engage with it. To our surprise, at one of our communities we regularly have between 15-20 participants, at another 6-10. Not everyone knows or remembers the others’ names all the time. We introduced name tags so that residents could see and hear each other’s names frequently. Calling each group member by name is a crucial aspect of this model, to create community and to be known by each other (and the Sacred) by name. Interestingly, one of the residents whose Alzheimer’s disease had progressed significantly was so delighted to see her name in writing. For her, to be in that circle of friends, to be known and to recognize her own name was the most meaningful part of this day’s Sacred Story time. As we sing together and then hear, see, and feel a Sacred Story, we open up new and different ways to experience the Divine. Wondering questions invite each participant to connect with the Sacred in their very own way. Residents may recall memories that resonated with the stories being told, such as reconciling with a sibling, welcoming back a child into one’s family, or helping a stranger in need.
The stories we tell include the parable of the Great Pearl (which touches on what may be the most important thing in one’s life, and what it feels like to give everything away), the Ten Best Ways to live by (traditionally known as the Ten Commandments) and the story of the Exodus (a story about suffering, liberation, freedom, divine intervention and joyful celebration).
Recently when I told this last story, using our “desert bag” filled with sand, I was deeply touched by the reaction of one resident who kept saying: “This is my story, these are my people.” We then spent time together speaking about the resident’s childhood and family. The smile and warmth reflected on the resident’s face as we talked was enlivening.
When we conclude our Sacred Story time, we go around in the circle and offer silence, thoughts or prayer, deepening on each resident’s desire. Those who voice prayers out loud frequently pray for their families. I hope that many families know that despite their sad experience of no longer being recognized as son, daughter, spouse or friend, their family member may well be reaching out in an unseen way, and praying for them.