Call it a Minnesota twist on the Christmas film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” A Minneapolis church has concocted a formula to remind everyday heroes that their lives have made a difference — albeit without the help of actor Jimmy Stewart and an unlikely guardian angel.
This month, Judson Memorial Baptist Church rolled out its fifth such event in the church social hall. Member Carl Appelquist was the star, a World War II veteran who was formerly an insurance executive, a hospital trustee, Eden Prairie school board member and volunteer leader with various religious and civic groups.
He wasn’t magically transported to his old haunts by a guardian angel, as in the film, but a digital slide show ferried him mentally to Iowa; Paris; New York; Washington, D.C.; Minnesota, and beyond. A packed house of family and friends watched the passage of time, too, sharing stories about Appelquist that were both touching and tart.
Looking back over his 89 years was gratifying — and fun, said Appelquist.
“Now that I’m in the twilight of my life, I’m thinking, ‘Is anyone any better off, any happier, because I lived?’ ” he said after the hubbub had subsided. “I think I can honestly say, yes, my life has been worthwhile. While I’m certainly not perfect, overall I feel good about the past.”
While some churches host birthday gatherings and other celebrations for members, creating a “This Is Your Life” format is unusual, religious leaders said. The idea emerged several years ago in a Judson church committee exploring ways to help members connect with one another and with the broader community, said David Buck, a church member who was part of the process.
The first event was held for the church’s oldest member, 101-year-old Grace Jones, now deceased. Soon others were organized for church elders, about once every six months, simply going by age. They all involved gathering friends and family. Collecting and sharing stories. A narrative of their life. A professional video. Laughter. Tears.
Each had a twist. Judson elder Jerry Larsen asked for a keg of root beer at his event. Sydney Rice brought some of her paintings and shared her reflections on art and spirituality. Fran Nelson, who grew up across the street from the church, wound up being invited to her former home to relive memories there.
A ‘living memorial’
The Rev. Peg Chemberlin, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches, said religious organizations are exploring ways to embrace a rapidly growing senior population. She called the project “a splendid idea.”
“I could imagine it being picked up by other denominations,” said Chemberlin. “A lot of the meaning in our lives comes from activity when we were younger. It helps reclaim that meaning.”
Appelquist’s experience showed how it all worked. After a Sunday service, his family and friends headed upstairs. As snowflakes drifted past the windows and children below practiced for the Christmas pageant, they grabbed coffee and cookies and took a seat at one of the tables.
In the front of the room sat Appelquist and emcee Karla McGray.
“I’m thrilled to welcome you to ‘This is Your Life, Carl Appelquist,’ ” McGray announced to the group, which burst into applause. “These celebrations have become kind of a living memorial. The truth is, each time, we learn so much about the people in our midst.”
Over the next hour or so, McGray shared a timeline of Appelquist’s life, peppering the guest of honor with questions. On the screen behind them, a video showed photos of his boyhood home in Iowa, his wedding to wife Doris, his time as a military police officer in Paris, and photos with his children, grandchildren and much more.
McGray went through a list of Appelquist’s accomplishments, such as decades as an insurance executive, as well as his volunteerism ranging from board member of the Minnesota Council of Churches to president of Mid-American Baptist Churches.
But the professional memories weren’t what Appelquist treasured most. That was reserved for “holding my first grandchild.”
The most poignant moments came when Appelquist’s children spoke. His wife was not able to attend because of her health.
“Dad, you’ve been the most important influence in my life,” said his son Jeff Appelquist of Apple Valley, holding back tears. “You’re one of a handful of the most intelligent people I’ve known. You’ve been a terrific inspiration to me.”
Daughter Joan Appelquist of Minneapolis told her dad that he showed her “how to live fully, with gusto and grace.” Son Tom, who flew in from Santa Fe, N.M., thanked his father for giving him “a sense of ambition and accomplishment.”
“I remember a fortune cookie you once got,” said Tom Appelquist. “It said, ‘Your children will appreciate you in old age.’ It was right. We really are three lucky kids.”
The audience joined in. One man shared a story about a time that he was on a church board of directors with Appelquist. Appelquist listened, and then confessed with a smile: “I have no memory of this. It must have been some dynamic leadership!”
As the close of the event, Appelquist shared his philosophy of life.
“When I get up in the morning, I look at the old guy in the mirror and I say, ‘Let’s try to find some joy and happiness today — and spread it around.’ I try to live by that.”
‘It builds spirit’
The program addresses a common challenge facing religious institutions, namely forging meaningful connections between folks of different ages, said the Rev. Alan Newton, executive minister of the Rochester/Genesee Region of the American Baptist Church, which includes Judson.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” said Newton. “It builds spirit and it helps people get to know each other. It’s a bridge between generations.”
It’s also inspirational for younger generations.
“When I hear about the life of someone like Carl, it’s an inspiration for how to live my own life,” said Shirley Doyle, a Judson member from Columbia Heights. “What do I want to be my own legacy? In what ways can I stay true to myself?”
As for Appelquist, he pronounced the video of his life and times “a very good movie.” He hoped to watch it again when his family gathered for Christmas Eve.
“I feel very lucky,” said Appelquist. “God and the fickle finger of fate have been very kind to me and the people I love.”