Complaint over prayer at senior centers erupts in eastern Kentucky

by Cathie Shaffer of The Daily Independent

GREENUP - The county's senior centers are places for golden-agers to meet for a meal, music, information and companionship.

But a recent memo from FIVCO has created a political firestorm that has their normally placid attendees up in arms.

The memo, dated July 5, orders all centers connected with FIVCO to replace the traditional prayer before meals with a moment of silence, based on a complaint received by the state.

According to Sandy Mendez, director of the Greenup Senior Center, the complaint originated at her center. She says the complaint came from someone who has only attended a few times and who, she says, was confrontational during his last visit.

The memo, sent to all centers overseen by FIVCO, says only that the complaint came from "an individual who feels he should not be subjected to the prayers of others," and adds "the same individual complained about music in the center."

The solution offered by the staff of the Division on Aging in Frankfort is that those wishing to participate in activities should arrive a half-hour before planned meal service, and those who wish only to eat should arrive a half-hour after meal service begins, when entertainment should end so "those who wish to do so may consume their meal without distraction."

The Greenup center offers daily noon meals along with special activities which range from exercise classes and weekly dances to off-site events like shopping and bowling.

Ralph Nichols, a regular at the Greenup center, says he was the one who prayed the day that spurred the complaint.

"I offered a blessing on the food, then I left because I had to be somewhere else," he said. "I didn't know anything about it until after it was all over."

"It," according to Mendez, was a verbal confrontation that nearly turned physical. Some of the Greenup regulars were ready to throw punches, so Mendez asked the complaintant into her office.

"He got in my face, yelling and shaking his finger, and I shoved my chair back to get away," she said. "I finally has to ask him to leave to get things settled down."

Sybil Hill, also a regular at the Greenup center, is appalled at the FIVCO decision.

"It's a shame that one person can complain and have what they believe put over what everyone else believes," she said.

In Flatwoods, the senior center operates on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, also with a noon meal. Their activities include cards, corn toss, medical information sessions and a weekly Bible study session.

Now some regulars worry that the Bible study will be taken away next.

"If someone who has never been here can take away our prayer and our music, how long until everything is gone, too?" asked one regular.

South Shore, which operates a nutrition site only, offers a hot meal and social interaction on Tuesday and Thursday.

Visits with attendees of all three centers showed a common reaction: Everyone is angry.

The South Shore group had already decided to petition FIVCO for a reversal of the decision, which has already been done in Catlettsburg. However, they've decided to wait on any such action, said Betty Carrington, a regular there.

"The South Shore site has met at the American Legion Hall there for 25 years, and there has always been a blessing before the meal, said Russell Maddix, who usually offers the prayer.

"I read a scripture, I ask the blessing and sometimes I sing a hymn, depending on my voice," he said. "Everyone has always enjoyed it, and
there's never been a complaint here. If there was, I wouldn't do it."

Greenup County Judge-Executive Bobby Carpenter, who also chairs the FIVCO board, says funding for the nutrition program, which provides the meals, comes from the federal Older Americans Act, with a miniscule amount provided by the state's Title 3 program for office expense.

He says that, personally, he sees no problem with prayer at the centers.

"If someone objects, they can come after the prayer is given or step out," he says. "We have prayer at the start of every fiscal court meeting, before we begin any business, and I'd advise anyone who didn't to hear the prayer to come in after we're done.

"As for the music, well, a lot of older people can't hear very well. What may be too loud for some of us will be just loud enough for them to hear it at all."

All three centers have adopted a new, non-official policy regarding prayer. Before a pre-meal blessing is offered, someone stand up and asks if there are objections. If no one speaks up, an oral prayer is given. If someone does object - which hasn't happened yet - a moment of silence will be observed instead.

"I'll tell you what we all need to do," says Nichols of the Greenup center, "is all pray for that man. He needs it."



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Last Updated: June 25, 2005