Chris Neel had developed a following of 30 people in his Bible study group at The Reserve at Hamilton Trace in Fishers. But when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, he could no longer meet in person with the senior living community members.
“You look forward to your retirement years, and suddenly to be locked up like that is not a way to do much for your mental, relational, emotional or spiritual health,” said Neel, a 60-year-old Fishers resident. “I’m a semi-retired pastor. I called every week on Mondays, because that’s when our Bible study was, for as long as they were locked down. I spent three to five minutes with them on the phone, checked on them, prayed with them, (read) them a Scripture.”
Neel’s wife, Sandra Neel, a professional violinist, sometimes played a song for members over the phone.
“When they let us get with them, we met outside at the gazebo (in the summer of 2020),” Neel said. “We wore masks and stayed 6 feet apart. My wife would come and play her music for about 10 to 15 minutes.”
Finally, Neel was able to return to in-person Bible study in mid-October 2020.
“It was hard for them and it was hard for me,” Neel said. “But I knew one day it might be me, and it’s nice to know that people cared. Since they were limited in social interactions, I made sure they had that plus having some spiritual food and fellowship.”
Neel started the Bible study 3 1/2 years ago with four members. It now has about 20 members.
“They’re wonderful people and I enjoyed getting to know them,” Neel said. “They are retired school teachers, lawyers and physicians. One of them used to be executive secretary to the president of what is now Chase Bank. These are all incredible people. We are trying to bring some joy into the challenging times they’ve all faced. It’s been a blessing to them, too.”
Neel occasionally fills in for Destiny Church Pastor Jeff Conrad for church service on Sundays. Conrad started his church at The Reserve in 2016. Neel had previously been a pastor at non-denominational churches.
The Reserve resident Mary Iberg, 88, attends the church services and the Bible study.
“We have all survived because of them,” Iberg said of Conrad and Neel. “Jeff has been just wonderful. When he couldn’t come, a few of us got together and kept the church services going. We dearly love him.”
Besides staying in touch during lockdown time, Iberg said Neel is faithful about calling people when they’re sick.
Iberg said it was difficult to keep the Bible study numbers consistent when it was held outside.
“Sometimes it was cold, and then sometimes it was hot and no one showed,” she said. “It’s been challenging, but we’ve tried to keep everything going with the help of the Lord.”
Iberg said she leads the prayer group at The Reserve.
“We try to keep everyone posted on who is needing prayer and who we need to visit,” Iberg said. “We’re so grateful to The Reserve to have such freedom with Christ because it doesn’t happen everywhere.”
Conrad, a Fishers resident, said Valerie Howard, The Reserve’s life enrichment director, informs either he or Neel if a resident needs support.
“I play the piano, sing, and preach and lead the worship,” Conrad said. “My wife (Julia) runs the soundboard when she’s available.”
Conrad returned to offering in-person service at The Reserve at Hamilton Trace in mid-October 2020.
“Once COVID hit, we weren’t allowed in,” Conrad said. “I do my sermons and put them up on YouTube. I send an email to some of the residents. They held their own services during that time when they were allowed to do it.”
Attracting members from outside The Reserve
Six church members don’t live at The Reserve, Pastor Jeff Conrad said.
“I continue to do a virtual service because those members are not allowed to participate yet,” he said. “The Reserve has done a very good job protecting its residents with their restrictions.”
Conrad, 56, serves as a hospital chaplain at Ascension St. Vincent’s Stress Center in Indianapolis.
“It was difficult and understandable whenever they had to be virtual,” Conrad said. “I feel really bad for the residents when they were shut into the home and couldn’t have friends and family come and see them. I think everyone is real happy to see things opening up.”