RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Carmen Leal spent 12 years watching her husband die.
Three years into their marriage, Leal’s husband David was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a familial disease that causes uncontrolled movements, loss of intellectual faculties and emotional disturbance.
Throughout his illness, Leal served as her husband’s caregiver. After his death, she felt called to support other caregivers through her experiences and firsthand understanding, so she established the SomeOne Cares Christian Caregiving ministry.
“Ultimately, the goal of SomeOne Cares is to train us to care, but [also] to focus on the One who cares,” Leal said during a special edition of Inside LifeWay, the official news podcast of LifeWay Christian Resources.
That goal was pursued in October as LifeWay’s Ridgecrest (N.C.) Conference Center welcomed about 150 church and lay leaders, professional and volunteer caregivers to the inaugural SomeOne Cares conference. The event partly focused on providing tips, resources and support for churches currently engaged in or looking to start ministries to caregivers.
Dick Peterson is a caregiver for his wife Elizabeth, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis about 10 years ago. Peterson said he came to the conference hoping to learn about beginning an organized caregiver ministry at Crossroads Community Church in Summerville, S.C., where he attends.
“My wife is very active and so she’s visible to the church,” Peterson explained, adding that she runs an MS support group in their hometown and teaches a women’s Bible study class. “I think there is a huge danger that the less visible fall through the cracks, and it’s easy for that to happen when it [caregiver ministry] isn’t officially organized.”
Conference speaker Betsy Ritzman agreed and taught a breakout session on establishing a care team ministry, which consists of an organized group of people offering focused care to needy members of the church.
“What did Jesus do?” Ritzman asked. “His attention was repeatedly drawn to people who needed some kind of care. There is no division between spiritual, emotional or physical wounds and healing.”
One-time caregiver Marilyn Britton said that her local hospice group offered support during her husband’s illness and death, but her church fell short. Her experience compelled her to approach her pastor about founding an official grief and support ministry at her church in Marysville, Ohio.
“When someone is really ill, your friends and family make a difference,” Britton said. “My church has loving hearts, but no one had given them the idea.”
During the Inside LifeWay podcast, Leal said caregiving covers a “huge spectrum” of situations, and she envisioned the SomeOne Cares conference addressing that diversity of needs. The conference’s topics, therefore, ranged from beginning care team ministries to creating opportunities for elderly members of the congregation to serve.
The weekend offered a topic for nearly every situation, but the opportunity for church and lay leaders to mingle with caregivers was one of the highlights.
“We’re all in this together,” Leal told conferees. “The caregivers need to know that you care and you need to know what their needs are.”
Robertson McQuilkin, author, speaker and longtime caregiver for his late wife, also addressed conferees. Throughout the 16 years he spent caring for his wife Muriel, McQuilkin said he never felt the need to ask, “Why?”
“If God took away adversity from everyone who trusted Jesus, the whole world would be Christians,” said McQuilkin, the former president of Columbia International University in Columbia, S.C. “But what kind of Christians would they be?
“If you’re in God’s place, doing what God has for you, caring for that loved one, He looks on it and He says, ‘That’s good, that’s real good. I like it.'”
While he didn’t need to ask “Why?” McQuilkin said other caregivers might, because, in caregiving, everyone’s circumstances are different.
Leal was one of the people who did ask, “Why?”
“It’s important that people understand it’s OK to say, ‘I hate my life right now’ and ‘God, why is this happening to me?'” Leal said, admitting that she experienced such dejected moments while caring for her husband. “It’s not OK to stay that way. I chose to take my lemons and make lemonade.”
For Leal, the lemonade she chose to make now comes in the form of her ministry, SomeOne Cares Christian Caregiving.
Leal acknowledged that there are many caregiver events in existence, but she said SomeOne Cares is the only one she knows of with a Christian foundation. The Ridgecrest event was the first of what she hopes are many future events scattered throughout the country that will feature prayer as a major component of the caregiving process.
Leal said she often emphasizes to caregivers that they cannot be afraid or ashamed to ask for the help they need.
“Caregiving is a foreign country,” she said during a breakout session. “You are going to have to ask for help. You’re going to have to ask for directions.”
“It [the conference title] says ‘SomeOne Cares,'” said Bob Willis, keynote speaker and sculptor. “Well, we know who that someone is.”
Brooklyn Noel is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.