Standing 6 feet 3 inches tall—2 inches shorter than his grandfather—Christopher Heller towers over frail, elderly worshipers in wheelchairs attending Sunday service at Lutheran Care Center, a skilled nursing home in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

In his white robe, the 23-year-old college student is the image of his grandfather, the Rev. John Heller, who passed away last fall at age 85, almost 20 years after joining the center as its spiritual-care director. The younger Heller is a comforting reminder to the home’s residents that the legacy of their beloved director of spiritual care lives on.

At the request of his grandfather, Chris began assisting at Sunday service two years ago, mostly helping with communion, a routine familiar to him growing up as a pastor’s grandson. John Heller was pastor of St. John’s in Poughkeepsie before retiring in 1998 and joining the Lutheran Care Center staff.

“As his mobility began to decrease, Grandpa asked me to help with communion and chauffeur people in wheelchairs back to their rooms after service,” Chris said.

Deborah Hafner DeWinter, pastor and current spiritual-care director of the Lutheran Care Center, said the residents now fight over Chris to get him to be the one to wheel them back to their rooms after a service.

“I’m very impressed that a young man of Chris’ age would have developed such a commitment to this community,” she said.

But Chris wouldn’t have it any other way. With a strong resemblance to and same gentle demeanor of his grandfather, he feels a kindred spirit to both John Heller and this ministry.

“The residents have grown to like me, as well,” he said. “I’m a connection to Pastor John that they like.”

Giving communion at a nursing home is more complicated than assisting with eucharist in a church setting, Chris said. He must be sensitive to everyone’s needs and physical limitations.

“I have to keep track of what each one wants,” he said. “For example, one resident only wants a blessing; another wants the bread not dipped in wine. And sometimes a person falls asleep and you have to wake them up or ask if they’re OK.”

These, too, are skills he learned from his grandfather. “If a resident would doze off during the sermon, Pastor John would clear his throat rather loudly,” Chris said. “He wasn’t very confrontational with people but had a nice way of diplomatically solving problems.”

Mary Heller, Chris’ grandmother and organist for the Lutheran Care Center services, shared proudly that her grandson not only looks like her husband of 58 years but also shares his diplomatic demeanor.

“Respect is a big word—it’s so important,” she said. “John and Chris respected each other’s personalities and were a great team.”

For now, as long as he can make the time, Chris vows to assist Hafner DeWinter at the 2 p.m. weekly service.

“It’s meaningful to carry on my grandfather’s memory,” he said. “It’s really a ministry of his personality—a gentle, nonconfrontational man with a deep connection to the residents.”

Wendy Healy
Healy is a freelance writer and member of Trinity Lutheran Church, N.Y. She served as communications director for Lutheran Disaster Response of New York following the 9/11 attacks.

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