Toting his Bible and guitar, Charles Palmer has arrived at the Lorien Nursing and Convalescent Home almost every Thursday morning for the past 17 years.
Plucking out tunes of old familiar hymns such as "Amazing Grace" and "The Old Rugged Cross," the 69-year-old Ellicott City resident leads a low-keyed gospel hour that includes sing-alongs, Scripture readings, speakers and testimonies that can draw as many as 60 nursing home residents.
"They are family to me. We help each other," said Mr. Palmer, a member of Arlington Baptist Church in Baltimore.
During the gospel hours at Lorien in Columbia's Hickory Ridge village, the soft-spoken Mr. Palmer often will allude to a 1976 experience that first led him to sing hymns at a nursing home in Catonsville.
"At the age of 44, I had had two heart attacks, which put me into retirement," said Mr. Palmer, who had worked on an assembly line at General Motors Corp. in Baltimore. "At the time, we had two children in school, and I had felt like I should have been the breadwinner."
Six years later, Mr. Palmer -- who was having bouts of depression -- was attending a prayer meeting, strumming his guitar as the group sang. After he expressed his desire to "do something for the Lord," a woman suggested that he visit a nursing home and sing to the residents.
"I felt that I didn't have much talent, and I didn't think any more about it," Mr. Palmer said. "Six months later, I was sitting at the breakfast table. I was depressed and had gotten so discouraged that I started praying, and then everything felt different.
"Although I had never been in a nursing home and I had never played in front of an audience, I went to the phone book and called a facility in Catonsville. The manager said, 'Sure, come on over.' They brought the people down [from their rooms]. I sang to them, and they sang songs that they knew. We had a good time."
Spurred on by the group's enthusiasm, the usually shy Mr. Palmer contacted other nursing homes, ultimately volunteering several hours a week. Within three or four years, he had played at 18 facilities.
"At one time in my life, I had stayed aloof from others," Mr. $H Palmer said. "In this ministry, I learned that no one is a stranger and that I shouldn't be afraid to stand in front of a crowd."
Mr. Palmer's work at Lorien began at the suggestion of an acquaintance who wanted to team up with him to sing hymns at the new facility. They started out by singing with five or six residents. Over the years, the small group grew.
Five years ago, Mr. Palmer's wife, Doris, retired from her job as a school secretary for the Howard County Department of Education. Since then, because he wants to spend more time with her and because of his heart problems, he has reduced his workload.
He leads hymn sings every fifth Sunday at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup. And occasionally he will sing at hospitals.
The bulk of his volunteer efforts, however, are at Lorien where he rarely misses a Thursday, except during July and August.
For the past 1 1/2 years, he has had the help of Erma Wissinger, a 67-year-old Ellicott City resident who plays the piano while Mr. Palmer strums his guitar and sings.
During a recent gospel hour, about 25 residents, some in wheelchairs, gathered in the dining area.
"I'm going to ask that you sing real loud," he said. "The songs are old-time favorites that you used to sing when you were in church . . . as you sing you will remember."
Tentative when the first chords of "Tell Me the Stories of Jesus" were played, weak voices gradually became stronger. Soon, nodding heads and clapping hands joined in the rhythm of the upbeat tunes.
"I enjoy the singing," said Percy James Catlett, a 71-year-old resident who read the day's Scripture. "It gives me a chance to express my thoughts, and I always feel better after being here."
Edith Heaney, a 59-year-old resident, said she especially liked the singing and the Scripture readings. "There's always something different, and it keeps me fresh," she said.
Asked what keeps him coming every week, Mr. Palmer responded in his quiet manner.
"I really enjoy this," he said. "Without this ministry I am nothing; it is the Lord's work."