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Printed by News Sentinel
Saturday, August 23, 2003
Article written by: Jeannine F. Hunter

A Place of REFUGE and SERVICE

SEVIERVILLE – It’s not officially called the James 1:27 center, but a new facility on the Smoky Mountain Children’s Home campus is designed to carry out the biblical message in that verse.
“ Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”
The Iris B. Vest Widows Ministry Center is designed to care for widows as the children’s home tends to the children.

The center is a place of refuge for women who have “spent their lives serving the Lord, loving the Lord,” said administrative director Judith Moore. The center is named in honor of the late first wife of Dr. R. Lamar Vest, general overseer of the Church of God, headquartered in Cleveland, Tenn.

It is an international ministry for widows drawing women from India to Indiana. A Church of God ministry, the 42-suite center sits on the campus of the group-care facility for homeless children and youth since 1920.

The first resident moved in in May. The ninth resident arrived Wednesday and 15 are expected to reside there by September’s end.

They’re surrogate grandmothers to the children who live in nearby cottages. And they’re friends to one another in a newfound network of women linked by faith and status. Each woman is either a Christian widow of a minister or layperson.

“ This place, to me, is what heaven must be like right before you go over to meet the Lord,” said Nedra Chesser, who moved from Florida on June 20, five days after her 73rd birthday.

The center represents a vision eight years ago of Dr. John Nichols, executive director of Church of God Care Ministries and president of Operation Compassion, a nonprofit charity designed to mobilize churches, individuals and community groups to provide food and basic necessities to those in need. He envisioned a place in which widows lived with the children, aiding them while they continued to serve active and vital roles in their community.

Betty Corbett of Muncie, Ind., who was an evangelist married to a Church of God minister, continues her puppet ministry with the children. During the summer, Ruth Williams of Chickamauga, Ga., read to children on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She also demonstrated crocheting to teenage girls.

Williams recalled that in 1980 she and her husband planned to serve as house parents at the home. Illness sidetracked them.

“ I was sitting in my living room and saw an ad on this and said to myself, ‘this is for me,’” she said. “I have a desire to work with children. … Any way I can show some care and kindness to them, I will do it.”

Moore travels regularly to meet prospective residents and make presentations to organizations.

“ No matter how busy I get, when I see them, I am not tired. I’m not weary,” she said. “They’re women. They’re fun, and they’re survivors.”

Annually, close to 700,000 women lose their husbands in the United States. About half the women 65 years and older are widows. Many churches nationwide do not have ministries specifically targeted to this population.

Moore envisions the residents as part of the center’s goal to educate others about ways churches and individuals can minister to widows in their respective communities.

They are a forgotten population because they’re silent about their needs, said Moore, a trained registered nurse and a former administrative manager at Knoxville’s Baptist Hospital.

“ These women are tough,” she said. “They don’t let you know if they’re hungry. They don’t let you know if they’re cold. They don’t let you know they’re lonely. They come to church Sunday after Sunday.”

The center and Church of God Care Ministries care for 1,500 widows in India. And residents such as Betty Rodgers already connect with widows through a newsletter she’s published since 1998.

“ The Lord wants people to understand He loves widows,” said Rodgers, who is also chaplain and activities coordinator, taking a break from stretching in the exercise room. “The definition of undefiled religion is to care for widows and the fatherless. A message I’d like to give to widows is, ‘You’ve experienced tremendous pain, but your life is not over. God can still use you and others need your joy, your strength and your love.’”

While physically designed as an assisted-living facility with emergency alert buttons in rooms and ready access to medical personnel, the center isn’t licensed as one.

Residents of the independent-living retirement center for women can take care of themselves.

“ This is not a place for people just to come and exist,” Moore said. “It is a place to restore the spirit, to uplift others and to hopefully extend their lives as they grow together as a community.”

While the women pay a monthly fee to stay at the center, prospective residents are not turned away because of their financial background, Moore said.

Walking through the facility, Moore points out the chandelier, a piano, a sofa set, a pair of bicycles and other donated items.

Moore also shares stories about donated services such as a Maryville doctor outfitting a bilateral hearing aid for a resident.

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