A Light+Life Podcast

With guest Chaplain Larry Petry

Hosted by Brett Heintzman

Jeff Finley

Jeff Finley

Light + Life Executive Editor

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.

by Jeff Finley

Heritage Ministries began 136 years ago after a young man had a train-wreck conversion and then received visions about meeting the world’s needs. As needs have shifted over the years, Heritage has adapted and expanded into a leading provider of senior services from New York to Washington states.

Walter Sellew wasn’t known as being particularly spiritual during his initial time as a Dartmouth College student. That changed after spending Christmas break in Dunkirk, New York, and boarding a train for the return trip to Hanover, New Hampshire.

“On his way back to college, the train that he’s riding on begins to derail. He’s in the middle of a train accident, and the train is going rather quickly into the Connecticut River,” said Heritage Ministries Senior Chaplain Larry Petry in a conversation with Brett Heintzman on a new episode of “The Light + Life Podcast.” “He’s in the middle of this train wreck, and he does what any of us would do and just has this moment where he cries out, ‘God, get me out of this, and I’ll give my life to You. Just help me out, and I’ll follow you.’”

Sellew survived the terrifying experience.

“The train goes into the water of the Connecticut River. The car that Sellew was in gets slightly submerged, but his part of the car does not go underwater,” Petry said. “He comes out of the train through an open window, and he walks away from this train wreck unscathed, and then like any of us he tries to go on with his life.”

A few weeks later, Sellew woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t go back to sleep.

“He’s probably disturbed by this promise He made to God and the state of his soul,” Petry said. “He kneels beside his bedside, and he has a real encounter with God transforming his life, beginning a real relationship with Jesus and then the call on his life.”


“God only knows the legacy that we can leave.”


Sellew finished his law studies and worked for his family’s business before becoming ordained. He served as a Free Methodist bishop from 1898 until his death in 1929, according to biographer Richard R. Blews. One of his most enduring accomplishments resulted not from his time as a bishop but from visions he received during his earlier years of serving God.

“He has these visions, which really break his heart for the needs of the world at his time,” Petry said. “In his visions, as he recounts it, he sees a road marked ahead of him, and it’s just filled with young people who are marching off to destruction.”

Sellew saw himself crying out to persuade the young people to turn away from destruction, but they kept marching so he lay in front of them.

“They end up climbing over him, around him, through him,” Petry said. “He is just so heartbroken by this vision, by this call that he has, that Walter Sellew felt compelled practically to begin meeting the needs of his world.”

In 1886, Sellew and ministry partners founded the Orphanage of the Free Methodist Church, which soon became known as the Gerry Homes.

“The work of caring for orphans began with Sellew’s train wreck conversion story,” said Petry, who added that Heritage Ministries’ Gerry, New York, campus is located on the orphanage site. “One of our current office buildings was actually the infirmary.”

As the Gerry Homes cared for orphans, its leaders realized that senior citizens also needed care. For a time, children and older adults simultaneously received care on the property, which gave the site an intergenerational family atmosphere.

Petry said the Gerry Homes cared for a total of 1,300 orphans before evolving needs and regulations led to its leaders “closing the operations of the orphanage and shifting primarily to focus on senior care.” Heritage Ministries’ services have since expanded within New York state and also to the states of Pennsylvania, Illinois and Washington.

Some of the Gerry Homes orphans’ sons and daughters are still alive, and Petry also encounters senior citizens who knew orphanage workers. He sees Sellew’s actions as an example for us.

“We can follow God’s call in our times today, and God only knows the legacy that we can leave,” Petry said.

From Students to Seniors

Following God’s call brought Petry and his family to Gerry, New York, in 2010 when he became the youth pastor of the Gerry Free Methodist Church.

“I actually came previously from a Youth for Christ background, so I came from a parachurch organization. I knew I had a call to ministry on my life, but I had not really landed within a church or denomination,” said Petry, who added that after youth ministry led him to Free Methodism, he “quickly began the ordination track while also pursuing studies at Northeastern Seminary. That was a good season.”

In 2017, the congregation’s senior pastor told Petry he would be retiring the following year, and Petry and his wife, Alisa, considered whether God might be calling them elsewhere.

“We honestly looked at everything — church ministry, parachurch ministry, secular work; everything was on the table. It was a season of discernment,” said Petry, who added that as they began to consider other potential areas of ministry, “some of the doors began closing.”

Meanwhile, Sam Shreffler was preparing to retire as chaplain at the Heritage campus near the Gerry FMC.

“One day my wife says to me, ‘Well, Chaplain Sam’s retiring. Why don’t you just go be the chaplain at Heritage Ministries?’” Petry recalled. “I scoffed at her suggestion. A couple of days later, Sam calls me and says, ‘Hey, Larry. Would you have any interest in being the chaplain at Heritage?’”

That led to much conversation and prayer.

“It was one of those things where it was a little bit out of left field, but I’ve found that’s how God works in my life — especially in major decisions,” Petry said.

Then he received a phone call from his grandmother who was living with his parents in Syracuse, New York.

“She has had a great journey in her own life from a lot of fear and anxiety to a place of confidence and encouragement,” he said. “As I’m in this discernment process, I have the best conversation I’ve ever had with my grandmother. I’m sitting in the parking lot of the Gerry Free Methodist Church knowing that this is totally a confirmation as she’s offering these blessings and these encouragements.”

Petry said tears came as he knew God had confirmed the call to serve senior adults, which marked a big change in his ministry focus.

“I went directly from working with students and youth ministry to working with seniors, and the joke that I made is: ‘No one wants to work with those middle-aged people. They are too rambunctious and too hard to deal with,’” he said. “I got a lot of mileage out of that joke for a while, but it’s been tremendous. I realized early on that no matter who it is, no matter what age, no matter what people are going through, people want to be heard. They want to be encouraged. They want to be loved, and those are things you can do with anyone in any age group no matter how confident or qualified you feel.”

Petry divides his time between Heritage’s Homestead retirement community in Gerry and the Heritage Green skilled nursing facility in Greenhurst, New York. He previously drove by Heritage facilities but didn’t understand the important work and ministry opportunities being offered.

After becoming an employee, he realized Heritage has “hundreds of lives that are touched and connected there — the lives of the residents themselves, the lives of their family members who are coming in as often as they can and participating from one degree to another in that community, the lives of hundreds of staff people.”

Ministry in Community

Along with caring for people in the later years of life, Heritage provides a valuable setting to address people’s spiritual needs.

“God is already at work. The Holy Spirit is already doing things in those people individually and collectively,” Petry said. “To be placed there as a chaplain — as a pastor — is a pretty incredible thing. There are people within our facility who are believers, and I can come alongside them and provide encouragement and hope to them.”

Heritage residents often engage in spiritual conversations, church services and Bible studies. Other residents, family members and workers, however, may not come from a Christian background.


“To place a person of God in the midst of that, God can do incredible things.”


“Maybe they don’t have a pastor at all in their own personal lives. Maybe they don’t have a church connection, but they’re in a place that has a chaplain,” Petry said. “If there is a time of need, if they need prayer, if they need someone to be a listening ear or provide some spiritual care, they can find that through the chaplain.”

Petry encouraged Christians to be open to chaplaincy as a place where God may be calling them to ministry.

“There’s really no limit to some of the creative ways where God is calling and placing people within contexts that are outside the walls of the church — places where people are already in community and already connected,” he said. “To place a person of God in the midst of that, God can do incredible things.”

Of course, working in a senior community can be challenging.

“There are days where things feel overwhelming in these times, but then very quickly those are followed by days where there are just some incredible conversations and incredible ministry moments,” Petry said. “One of the privileges I have is reminding our other staff and our residents of the little ways — but significant ways — God is at work.”

Heintzman asked Petry about the common assertion that people are most likely to accept Christ when they are younger in contrast to older people who are set in their ways.

“Reaching people at a young age is incredibly effective, but I think there are also ways where God is at work in different generations and in different settings,” Petry replied. “It’s not uncommon for people to be reached within the Heritage communities, and we’re looking and praying for more and more of that today and in the days ahead.”

Petry said that residents may come to faith while interacting closely with believers who live or work with them.

“Maybe they’re hearing the songs that are being sung, or maybe they’re overhearing a Bible study that a staff person is sharing. Maybe there’s a family member that comes in and is a blessing and encouragement,” he said. “Those seeds are being planted all the time in the context of community.”

He was inspired by his predecessor, Sam Shreffler, whom he described as “a soul winner” who “would be very bold about making a salvation invitation to people even in the later seasons of life.”

Petry’s ministry includes music.

“I go through our nursing home on Sunday mornings, and I sing. I grab my guitar, find a spot, pull some residents together, share some songs, share some Scripture and prayer, and then go throughout the building,” he explained.

One 93-year-old woman regularly tells Petry that she listens to him in the hallway as she sits in her room, and he often enters her room and prays with her. On a recent Sunday, the woman switched the routine.

“She grabs my hand, and she prays for me. If you’re ever had a 93-year-old woman lovingly, tenderly, passionately pray for you, it’s just such a powerful experience,” he said.

While the world of 2022 may cause fear, intergenerational conversations can provide reassurance to younger people as they hear how their elders survived previous periods of war and economic instability.

“We have these incredibly challenging, complex and complicated times that we’re trying to navigate, but the testimony and presence of our older saints gives me absolute confidence,” said Petry, who added that because of “what God did for them and in their time,” we know “He can and will get us through this as well.”

Younger adults receive valuable guidance through connecting with older generations.

“If it was just one part of the church, if all we had is right here, right now, we would have no road map for how God might lead us through,” he said. “But any one of us can have a conversation with one of these older saints — even what God has brought them through personally — and it will help us realize that God can do that for us too.”

He has a passion for connecting congregations with Heritage Ministries.

“I really believe in the church. I believe in the partnerships that Heritage Ministries and churches can have, and honestly the biggest thing we need right now is prayer,” said Petry, who noted that the pandemic has increased financial and staffing complications that senior care providers already were facing. “It’s been a season of compounded challenges, and yet God has brought us through.”

Visit heritage1886.org for more information about Heritage Ministries’ communities along with giving and career opportunities. +

Jeff Finley

Jeff Finley

Light + Life Executive Editor

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.