Pastor brings church to assisted living residents at DeSoto Palms

srocco@bradenton.comMay 17, 2014 

UNIVERSITY PARK -- When they become too old, tired or weak to attend church, Bill Pierson brings the church to them.

On two Sunday mornings a month, you can find him marching through the front doors of DeSoto Palms Assisted Living Community, black suitcase rolling behind.

He takes the elevator up to the third floor and sets up shop in a multipurpose room containing chairs, TV, kitchen and a Magnum ice cream freezer.

For Pastor Pierson, 73, it's not about having a glamorous room or fancy church pews.

It's about salvation.

After all, this is the last stop before heaven.

• • •

After moving to Bradenton in 1998, Pierson recognized the loneliness among seniors living in mobile home parks and other facilities. In response, the licensed and ordained minister started Jesus Only You Fellowship, an organization of pastors with the mission of ministering to seniors at their homes. JOY pastors now preach at 13 facilities across Sarasota-Bradenton.

Pierson has been leading this ministry for the past 15 years. He's also served as a chaplain at Manatee Memorial Hospital the past 10 years and at the Manatee County Sheriff's Office the past three.

Each JOY service lasts 45 minutes to an hour, except in the memory care facilities, where Pierson tries to keep it to half an hour.

The service begins with four or five songs: "Some of the more modern songs they're unsure of, so we stick to the older hymns," Pierson notes.

Then a message: "I try to keep it basic. We don't want to go too deep with them."

And then Pierson and his wife pray over each attendee.

"Some of these people do not know where they're going. They say 'Oh, I've done a lot of good things, I'll go to heaven.'" Pierson says. "But anyone who goes to a Christian church knows that's not how it works."

• • •

One hand gripping a cane, the other resting on his knee, Fred Ruhlin, 99, listens intently to his pastor's message.

Carolyn, Pierson's adoring wife, passes around a cup of crushed saltine crackers and thimbles of grape juice for communion.

"Father, we pray now as this body and blood of Jesus now enters our body that His body will cause our body to strengthen and quicken," Pierson recites.

After everyone takes communion, Pierson puts his hand on top of Ruhlin's head and prays. For health, for happiness, for peace.

Adaline Promey, 94, scoots out with her walker after she receives her prayer. For Promey, church is an escape from routine life, something to dress up to attend. DeSoto Palms has 82 residents, and Promey is disappointed only seven showed up.

"I would think more people our age would be religious," she said. "It's only an hour of your time."

Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.

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