SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The stained-glass windows in the First United Methodist chapel cast colorful shadows on the white plastic tables as 17 people find their seats.

The youngest among them is 80 years old.

It's the monthly meeting of Wedded Band, a group of married couples who share the Methodist tradition, and the recently remodeled chapel feels like a family reunion.

Wedded Band started as a group for newlyweds in 1954, and six decades later, many of the same couples keep the fellowship alive. These couples have raised children together, celebrated grandchildren and great-grandchildren together, and now, in the late stages of their life, offer companionship.

"We trust each other implicitly," said Carolyn Vollan, 82. "We love each other no matter what, and I don't think there's ever been a divorce in the group."

Vollan, the secretary for the group, leads a prayer at the start of the meeting. She ends with: "And all God's people say, 'Amen.'" And the rest join her for the final word.

Beverly Halbritter, 85, was one of the first members to join Wedded Band, a group started by the late Rev. Henry Lewis.

When the group began, "none of us had babies," Halbritter said. "But that changed the next year."

Lewis was the type of pastor who taught couples how to work through their differences and stick together during the hard times, said Rev. Rodney Gist.

Gist remembers Lewis both as a fellow pastor and as a mentor for he and his wife, Doris, to whom he's been married 65 years.

"He knew how to plant people in the place where they could grow and blossom," Gist said.

The Gists joined Wedded Band shortly after their wedding, and, after several years moving from parish to parish across the state, they retired near Sioux Falls and became more active in the group.

The couple met when Doris, a lifelong musician, played piano at the funeral for Rodney's grandmother. They courted long-distance, writing letters between seminary in Chicago and Doris' hometown of Inwood, Iowa, and around Christmas, Rodney proposed under the moonlight in an Iowa cemetery.

"I asked her if she'd like to be part of the gene pool," he said.

Sixty-five years of telling that story and the couple still can't tell it without giggling.

In the early years, Wedded Band served as an outlet for newlyweds and young parents, the Argus Leader reported . For Vollan the group meetings were therapeutic as a young mother.

She and her husband, Clare Vollan — who will celebrate his 90th birthday in April — joined the group soon after their marriage in September 1956. Once the couple began having their four children, Carolyn relied on Wedded Band to network (and sometimes commiserate) with other moms.

"It became a support system," Vollan said. "I didn't have to feel guilty about being really wrung out."

Over the years, she recalls many instances of inviting other families in the group over for playdates or time to socialize. They became so close, they practically raised each other's children.

"At any time you can call somebody and say, 'Why don't you come over for a cup of coffee?'" she said.

Vollan credits faith for the group's longevity. It's not only served as a support system, but it's also given couples something to focus on beyond themselves and their marriage.

Service is at the center of Wedded Band's mission. They've helped with everything from mowing the church lawn to supporting missionaries in New Guinea.

They've also helped build houses, supported the church daycare, served breakfast to churchgoers and volunteered as bell-ringers collecting change in the Christmas season. Their age hasn't slowed down their service. While they can't physically volunteer as much anymore, last year they donated $1,500 to various charities in Sioux Falls.

Doris Gist credits those acts of service as a factor in the strength of her marriage.

"We've always had a mission or two outside of ourselves," she said.

The secret to a strong marriage, by the way, is "renegotiating the contract" over time, Rodney Gist said. It helps if you can see things from your spouse's perspective, a lesson he learned from Lewis.

"I think we had better guidance on how to put ourselves in the other person's shoes," Gist said. "Once you know a person who does that, you don't want to be without them."

It's a religious group, but Wedded Band members hold patriotism close to their hearts. Nearly all of the men in the group are veterans, and at every meeting, they begin with prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.

They don't talk politics, but they do share a common respect for the flag.

Vollan recalled one member in particular, Marv Stadum, who spent the last part of his life in a wheelchair. Stadum served in the United States Air Force in Korea and went on to sing in the Legion choir.

When he died in March 2017, his obituary described him as a "patriot."

"It really hurt all of us when he wasn't able to stand anymore to say the Pledge of Allegiance," Vollan said.

Stories like Stadum's are becoming more common in the Wedded Band group. Between the December and January meetings, the group lost three members, including their oldest member who died at 100.

Now, Wedded Band is again becoming a support group, not for new mothers, but for widows and widowers who've lost their decades-long partners. They've been to the funerals of close friends, and they've seen wives and husbands take care of one another through all of the medical issues, immobility and memory issues that come with the end of one's life.

The remaining couples find strength in their marriage and gratitude for the time they have. They celebrate their lives and the successful marriages of their children and grandchildren.

And, at the end of the day, faith carries them through.

"After all is said and done, we can say we've done what we wanted to do," Vollan said. "And we can do nothing but be thankful."

And all God's people say, "Amen."


Information from: Argus Leader,