More than a quarter-century ago, Herm Haakenson of Lynnwood, Washington, discovered a neglected mission field in the United States: nursing homes. And the recently retired commercial angler says the ministry opportunities have only expanded as Americans live longer and families are more fragmented. Convalescent centers are America's fastest-growing institution.
Haakenson, now 76, started the Sonshine Society in 1973. Because of his group, more than 14,000 lay volunteers help with regular worship services that reach 300,000 people in care centers across the country.
Every Sunday morning, volunteers who have been trained with nondenominational Sonshine Society materials lead worship, preach, and teach Scripture memory in nursing homes.
Although some residents are hardened to the gospel and some are senile, Haakenson has found many who want to learn about the Lord because they feel so lonely.
"Many have been forgotten and feel as though they have wasted their life," Haakenson says. "Most really are helpless. They are the 'least of these' that Jesus told us to minister to."
Sonshine volunteers build relationships with residents that often include one-on-one visits in addition to the services.
"When people enter a nursing home and put all their possessions in a dresser, they take another look at eternity," Haakenson says. He developed large-print songbooks for use during services and large-print tracts for non-Christians.
Although there are currently 2 million people in nursing homes, Haakenson says 50 million Americans alive now are expected to spend their last days in such a facility.
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