Published December 11, 2014
WAYCROSS — Georgia Baptists are people of the “book,” and the “book” has a host of instructions about evangelism, missions, and Christian education. Tucked within those same pages one also finds directives concerning elder care.
“If you don’t take care of the elderly and your family, you deny the faith,” said Ray Haygood, vice president for advancement of Baptist Villages, a Georgia Baptist ministry that he says is “quite biblical.”
Even Christ looked down from the cross and instructed the apostle John to care for His mother, Haygood often tells churches.
In 1953, the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) appointed a committee to assess the need and possibility of developing a ministry to senior adults. The following year’s messengers to the state annual meeting approved the report. In 1955, Harvey Mitchell of Barnesville became the first administrator and by 1958 Baptist Village had its first resident. Baptist Village began offering skilled nursing care in 1964.
The idea of a statewide agency for older adults originated in Savannah with the wife of former GBC Executive Director-Treasurer Searcy Garrison. But Waycross emerged as the favored site for the first campus. Georgia Baptists bought a former county prison farm, and two of those original buildings remain in use today.
“The original intent was to provide a full continuum of care,” said current Baptist Village President Delos I. Sharpton. “Mitchell devised a long-range plan. His ideas have been developed to the point that our 2005 picture of the campus is almost identical to his conceptual picture.”
Baptist Villages today serves 500 residents in three locations – Waycross, Macon, and Lake Park – while employing 400 staff and operating on a $20 million budget.
Georgia Baptists experienced phenomenal growth in the 1950s and had a major presence in the state. Convention leaders dreamt big as they developed a holistic ministry to support local church needs.
What began as a modest residence facility has morphed into a full-service health-care operation for senior adults. The Waycross campus offers three levels of service: independent-living apartments, assisted-living facilities, and skilled nursing. Neither Macon nor Lake Park offer skilled nursing.
Sharpton estimates that given the complexity of health-care reform and regulation, the odds that Georgia Baptists could initiate such an endeavor today is about 2 percent.
“Baby boomers are going to be about 78 million people,” Sharpton said of America’s aging population. “The needs of senior adults are not waning, they are increasing.
“The reality is that current expectations are far greater than they were in 1958. Seniors want more amenities, larger rooms, etc. The generation that came here in the ‘50s and ‘60s were from the Depression generation and were happy to have a roof over their head. A 250-square-foot apartment was adequate. Not in today’s world.”
The Waycross campus now has a wellness center with a therapeutic pool, weights, and exercise equipment, none of which was common in the 1950s.
“We have 90-years-olds going to the wellness center,” Sharpton said.
The Baptist Village’s growth has not deterred its ministry objective. A full-time chaplain serves the Waycross campus. His duties go far beyond leading two weekly chapel services to include family counseling, hospital visits, and conducting memorial services.
“We accept individuals from all faiths or no faith,” said Sharpton, who is a former senior pastor. “Residents understand there will be exposure to the Christian faith.”
Besides meeting spiritual needs, Baptist Villages must also assist with financial needs. Medicaid residents receive a subsidy of about $15 per day. The Cooperative Program (CP) is a primary source for that and other benevolence expenditures.
“The greatest thing Southern Baptists ever did was in 1925 when they formed the Cooperative Program,” Sharpton said. “It has made doing these kinds of challenging ministries possible.”
Baptist Villages receives about $250,000 annually through CP.
“We are a benevolent organization, which means from the very beginning of this organization we’ve been here to help and assist people,” Sharpton said.
Jim Burton is a photojournalist living in Cumming. Besides Baptist Villages that operates in south Georgia, Georgia Baptists also own Baptist Retirement Communities of Georgia, which has facilities in Decatur, Hiawassee, and Palmetto.
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