When Ann Decker wants to telephone from her Bethesda home, she inches her elbow toward the speaker phone beside her bed and hits a metal plate that depresses the O. The operator then dials the number for which Decker asks.
Decker, 54, is nearly paralyzed from the neck down and has been bed ridden for the last 12 years as the specially equipped telephone, which keeps her in contact with the outside world, was the idea of a fellow church member.
The telephone device is just one example of the kind of aid member of Cedar Lane Unitarim Church in Bethesda offer each other through their "We Care" program. The program attempts to organize the widely borhoods. Members are encouraged to socialize with other Unitarian Universalists in their areas so they can develop friendships and come to depend on each other in times of need.
"The specially equipped telephone saved my life," said Decker (not her real name). "I can initiate calls now; before I would tie up my housekeeper a lot bringing me the phone and dailing calls. It opened up my life."
Decker had not been active in the church until seven years ago when her husband of 25 year suddenly left her. "When he left, my mind was blown," she said. "I didn't know what to do because I was totally helpless. I called the church because I wanted a lawyer. I wanted to know what in the world I could do. The minister found me a lawyer and came to see me to see how he could help.
"One way he helped was to send a member of the We Care committee to see me," said Decker, "and that's what saved my life."
The committee arranged for someone to vist Decker one night a week to feed her so that the live-in housekeeper could have a night off. Several other members visited or telephone Decker occasionally. Someone now brings her a tape recording of the Sunday service. In addition Decker has gained a network of contacts she can call in an emergency.
But the greatest way church members have helped, Decker said, is fulfilling her need for a lot of moral support."Sometimes I think and I get very depressed. My God, I've had MS for 22 years, and maybe I'll go on for another 22 years. I hope not, but it's possible."
The We Care committee was formed in 1971 when Cedar Lane, one of the five largest Unitarian Universalist congregations in the country, was without a minister for a year.
"We saw a need for ministering among our congregation at that time," said Betty Anastos, religious education director, "and we thought the neighborhood approach would work.
"We provide things you would normally get from your family," said Betty Allen, who is in charge of recruiting neighborhood chairman.
"But in this area, most people don't have close relatives. So we drive people to their doctors' appointments, bring them flowers when they're sick, offer moral support, baby-sit during emergencies or help out when there's a death in the family."
"In 1975, my husband had brain tumor surgery and was in the hospital for four months," said Mary Fine, a church member. "So I was commuting to the hospital for four months. Even though I lived 10 miles from the church, during most of that time someone from the church would bring me a casserole every week and people drove my children to Sunday school."
More than half the 1,000 adult members of Cedar Lane are over 55, according to Fine, and many elderly church members need rides to doctors' appointments and church services.
The committee has also helped people who are not members of Cedar Lane, according to Fine.
Another branch of the We Care committee assists the minister and education director in providing extended social services. This group consists of about 12 members, most with professional counseling background, who make family visits when the minister cannot.
Like the other committee, they offer moral support but are more interested in discovering the unmet needs of parishioners, which they can refer to the We Care committee or a state agency.
"Our program only works when something happens. We like it when it doesn't have to work," said Fine. "But whenever there's trouble, this is the first place they call."