Chaplains Add to History of State Supported Living Center

By LORETTA FULTON

A worship service on the campus of the Abilene State Supported Living Center is part church camp, part old-time revival, part Sunday morning worship–and all love.

“Hi, Bill!” a young man yells at the chaplain, Bill Spencer. The young man is jumping up and down in his cowboy boots, greeting the chaplain, and directing music–all at the same time. People are walking or moving around the chapel in wheelchairs, and there is noise all around. It’s a joyful noise. It gets louder and better as Ida Ann Spencer, the chaplain’s wife and pianist, begins to play the gathering song, “We Have Come Into His House.” 

Chaplain Bill Spencer leads worship at Abilene State Supported Living Center and his wife, Ida Ann Spencer, plays piano and leads singing. Photo by Loretta Fulton

The noise and chatter doesn’t stop when Scripture is read or when Spencer preaches on “A Word to the Wounded.” He is speaking directly to the residents of the center, all of whom have a severe disability. And, he is speaking to staff and guests present for the service in the Don Cauble Friendship Chapel.

“In every chair in this room are wounded people,” Spencer said at the opening of a recent chapel service. 

Spencer and Cauble are but two of the chaplains who have served the State Supported Living Center, which formally opened as a state epileptic colony on March 26, 1904. The Grace Museum has an exhibit through July 17 titled, “Creating a Community: The State Epileptic Colony in Abilene.” The exhibit traces the center’s history through more than fifty original photos from the museum’s permanent collection, along with documents and photos from the Abilene State Supported Living Center and other places. 

CREATING A COMMUNITY: THE STATE EPILEPTIC COLONY IN ABILENE
What: Exhibit about the Abilene State Supported Living Center
When: Through Saturday, July 17
Where: The Grace Museum, 102 Cypress St. (Third floor history gallery) Sunday/Monday: Closed
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and Thursdays 5-8 p.m.
Admission: $6 adults; free admission Thursdays 5-8 p.m.; $3 seniors, students & educators (with ID), non-active duty military
Free for children ages 3 and under, museum members, active duty military & families (with ID)
More information: https://www.thegracemuseum.org/exhibitions-list/2020/10/10/creating-a-community-the-state-epileptic-colony-in-abilene

The museum’s website notes that “Today, the AbSSLC is dedicated to the treatment, rehabilitation, independence of individuals with disabilities, and helping them feel safe and healthy.”

The chaplains who have served the center, including Spencer, have played a big role in reaching that goal. Currently, 254 residents live at the center and 65 percent of them are non ambulatory, which means they must be pushed in a wheelchair wherever they go, including chapel. The residents are cared for by 1,250 staff, who work in three eight-hour shifts.

Spencer and the chaplains before him minister to them all. In 2020, when the campus was shut down due to COVID, Spencer ministered by phone and in-person where practical. He also performs staff weddings and presides at funerals and burials in the center’s cemetery, which is located off-campus. The cemetery has 1,544 graves, with markers dating from 1904 to 2021.

Spencer is an ordained Baptist minister and formerly served churches in Brady and DeLeon, as well a University Baptist Church in Abilene. He also previously taught classes at Hardin-Simmons University. Spencer holds a bachelor’s degree from Baylor University and master’s and doctorate degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. Baptist as he is, Spencer’s worship services at the State Supported Living Center are nondenominational.
“It’s what I call the biblical approach,” he said. 

Since 1982, chapel services have been held in the Don Cauble Friendship Chapel, named in honor of a 20-year chaplain at the center. Cauble, who died in 2017, was chaplain when a drive started to build a chapel on the campus. Services had been held in a multi-purpose building. 

The original drive to raise $250,000 started Oct. 25, 1973, when the Volunteer Services Council passed a resolution to kick off the drive. By the time the chapel opened in 1982, the price had gone up to $400,000–all of which was raised locally, with the help of churches, the city’s three universities, businesses, and individuals. 

Chapel Dedication Day was held Aug. 1, 1982. A booklet printed for the occasion included a message from Cauble, “To Our Friends Who Made This Chapel Possible.” Cauble thanked all who donated money, effort, and time to the project.

“How does one adequately express appreciation for something so fine as this?” he asked in the message. “You have done a great thing. A unique segment of our society joins me in saying, ‘We thank you with all our heart and God bless you.’”

Today, Bill and Ida Ann Spencer are the people leading the worship as part of the ministry to this unique segment of our society. They’ve been doing so for twenty years. In previous years, the chapel boasted a handbell choir and a participation choir, which allowed residents to take part by striking a triangle, shaking a pair of maracas, or whacking a couple of sticks together. 

The chapel at the Abilene State Supported Living Center honors longtime chaplain Don Cauble, who died in 2017. Photo by Loretta Fulton

With a more fragile population today, those activities aren’t practical, but everyone participates in some way, whether by singing, clapping, jumping, or shouting. No matter the ability level of the residents listening to Spencer in the chapel, he seeks to “inform, inspire, affirm.”

“I don’t see this job as about me,” he said. 

Spencer puts as much time and effort into his service preparation as if he were still preaching in the cavernous auditorium at University Baptist Church. In fact, he said, it takes more study and preparation time for the living center congregation than for a church service. He must present the sermon and explain the Scripture readings so that people with lesser mental abilities can understand.   

For a recent sermon, Spencer told the story of the Good Samaritan. He urged his listeners to cast themselves in the role of the traveler and to take away three messages:

“You may be down, folks, but you are not out.”

God still cares for you and knows where you are. His people care for you.

“Be careful that you don’t get bitter and give up.”

The state of Texas operates State Supported Living Centers in thirteen locations. Each has a chaplaincy program designed to fit the needs of that center’s clientele. Hopefully, the chaplain at each center has the same philosophy–or theology–as Spencer, who obviously has an attachment to his congregation.

“If they know they’re loved and appreciated and honored,” he said, “then it’s OK.”

Loretta Fulton

Loretta Fulton is creator and editor of Spirit of Abilene

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