By VIKI EIERDAM
RIDGEFIELD, Wash. — On the last Sunday of every month, folks can get a little church with their eggs and bacon at Summit Grove Lodge here.
In the oldest rooms of a lodge that dates back to the 1800s, the smooth vocals of Nehemiah Brown feed the soul of brunch-goers. His sets begin with old- school hits like “When I Fall in Love,” “Moonlight in Vermont” and “Skylark,” but an hour in guests are also treated to gospel favorites like “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art” and “It Is Well With My Soul.”
Brown casts infectious smiles and playful winks to his audience as he delivers love songs popularized in the 1940s and ’50s. His baritone voice evokes visions of Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. Between songs, he often lingers at the hostess stand greeting guests as they await a linen-draped table under the massive beams of the stately building.
Summit Grove Lodge is known in these parts on its own but Brown’s monthly appearance brings in fans young and old that are often introduced to him at one of the 88 retirement communities he serves throughout Oregon and Washington. At 64 years of age, Brown, an ordained minister, is right where he’s supposed to be.
“God called me to serve our nation’s seniors,” Brown said. “I give because they gave and I want them to see what I’ve done with what they’ve given me and, by ‘me,’ I mean my generation.”
Growing up in the South, Brown was privileged to be mentored by his grandmother Mattie Sue Westbrook who, as Brown describes it, was one of most popular gospel singers in Mississippi and Arkansas in her day. Her God was his God, but when he went off to join the Navy in 1970, he “traded the friendship of Jesus for the friendship of Jack Daniels,” as he put it.
Over the next 20 years, he pursued a life contrary to his upbringing and nearly lost his family as a result. One day in 1990 in Lynnwood, Wash., Brown heard “Welcome to My World” by Jim Reeves and the floodgate of tears was released.
“He had to take everything out of me. He had to scrape everything I had created in my spirit (and) in my mind to make room for Him. I was a very selfish person. I had people believing I would give you the shirt off my back, and I would, but I would keep the buttons,” Brown said.
Fast forward several years, Brown had been working as a certified nursing assistant with a focus on geriatrics, and the opportunity to start God’s Forgiving Grace Ministries with his wife, Carol, fell in their laps. He had been providing for their physical needs, but now he was focusing on their spiritual needs one song at a time. By forming a connection through songs of their youth, Brown is able to minister to the senior population and share God’s love for them at a time when many of them feel forgotten and useless.
Brown said, “I say ‘God says I love you down here and I want to love you up there.’ I’ve walked many people to the Lord in hospice because I love them.”
Through serving the elderly population, Brown is also honoring the memory of his grandmother, a woman for whom he held deep respect. Through her, he learned to seek wisdom in the generations that have gone before and be a headlight for the generations nipping at his heels. It is this mindset that he gives much of the credit for his personal successes.
“I’ve been married for 42 years because I ask men who’ve been married for 60-plus years,” Brown said. “If I’m talking to a group of my generation, I would say be more curious to find out what they know because the game stays the same; people change.
“Don’t tell a senior that was then (and) this is now. Back in the days before Jesus Christ there was adultery, child abuse, marital problems (and) money problems. It’s all the same. Is it hard? Sure, but you gotta change yourself. You gotta change your heart. You gotta change the way you respond to things. My marriage would be long gone if I hadn’t been taught to ask the aged.”
Brown is available for singing and speaking engagements. To find out more, go to www.godsforgivinggrace.com.