While most of the country is focused on the congressional debate about health insurance reform, a Disciples congregation in Virginia is quietly continuing its work of providing health care to people in need, just as it has done for the last 20 years.
William “Bill” Lee, pastor of Loudon Avenue Christian Church in Roanoke, and his 800-person congregation have offered a health ministry for Roanoke’s medically uninsured and under-insured on the northwest side of the city since 1989.
Lee recently was honored for his work in community health care by having the educational wing of a remodeled health clinic named in his honor. The Rev. Dr. William L. Lee Education Center is part of New Horizons Health Care, a community-wide clinic that sees 9,000 patients a year. The clinic was started years ago in the basement at Loudon Avenue before moving to its present location.
“Our mission has always been to have available, affordable health care for those who might not otherwise receive it,” says Lee, who is familiar to many Disciples because of his active role on a number of church-wide groups, including serving as Church Moderator from 2005 to 2007.
What many people may not know is that the reserved, bespectacled pastor has a passion for providing health care to the poor and uninsured that was sparked when he was forced to watch his father’s health deteriorate because he lacked insurance.
Lee’s dad worked long days and nights as a fisherman along the Virginia coastline. But when his dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 64, the family couldn’t afford adequate treatment until Medicare took effect at age 65. By that time, the cancer had grown more aggressive, and although he lived three more years, Lee painfully remembers his dad’s suffering.
“My pain eventually became my passion,” says Lee emphatically. “Seeing what my dad went through made me want to develop a health care ministry at our church. Instead of walking around wounded, I decided to do something.”
Early on, Lee was joined in his efforts by church member Linda Manns, who still serves as Loudon Avenue’s parish nurse. “We started in the late 1980s doing blood pressure checks after church service,” said Manns, who works full-time as a community health nurse manager for the Veterans Administration in nearby Salem, Va. “Over time, we started getting requests for other health assessments, such as diabetes, heart disease, nutrition and exercise programs. Soon we were seeing 30 to 40 people a week.”
Shortly thereafter, the ministry caught the attention of the local hospital – Carillon Health Care. “They asked us if we were interested in working with them on a community outreach program,” said Manns, “and of course, we said, yes.”
The Carillon connection allowed Loudon to receive the services of a part-time nurse at the church. As the program continued to grow, the church received a grant to employ a person to provide transportation and companion care for the home-bound elderly. Soon the church received another grant, which resulted in CARE-Ride, a non-emergency transportation program to take the elderly to doctor appointments and pharmacy visits.
Alongside the screenings at the church also grew the beginnings in 1996 of a church-based clinic, which is now New Horizons Health Care. It was Lee’s vision to start the clinic, whose work was so successful that it moved out of the church basement in two years into the stand-alone facility that it operates from today as a not-for-profit health clinic in Valley View Mall. The clinic primarily serves those who are uninsured, or underinsured as well as those who are able to pay on a sliding fee basis.
“God really worked in moving the clinic to its present stage,” says Lee with a smile, who acknowledges that his efforts built upon attempts of others to offer health care for the those in need in Roanoke. Today the clinic is a fully staffed health center with 30 medical professionals, including a primary care physician. It is this clinic that was recently remodeled, and which receives over $1 million a year in federal funds for its operations.
At Loudon Avenue, the church has continued to focus on holistic health care through its Faith Health Ministry. Prostate screenings are held each June and the church hosts a “Pink Tea” to highlight breast cancer each October where refreshments and educational materials are distributed to women. Once a year, the church also conducts diabetes and high blood pressure screenings.
“We have, I believe, a wonderful ministry,” says Manns. “People come here to worship, but it’s very difficult to worship if you don’t feel well or you’re worried about not being able to afford your medications. As part of our outreach, we deal with the whole person – physically, psychologically, socially and spiritually.”
“We intend to continue our health ministry in all its facets,” concluded Lee. “Regardless of what happens in Washington, there will always be people with health care needs and as people of faith we intend to be there to serve them.”
Three examples of parish ministry services offered by other Disciples churches include:
East Aurora Christian Church – East Aurora, N.Y.
East Aurora has had a health ministry for about 10 years, and a formal parish nurse ministry for five years. Pastor amos acree, RN, describes the ministry as vital to the life of the church since Christians must not only preach/teach the good news, but heal as Jesus sent his disciples to do. The church offers blood pressure screenings at fellowship hours, home/health facility visitations, an annual flu shot clinic and a mini-health fair; a monthly walking club and networking with other congregations about health ministry.
Hiram Christian Church – Hiram, Ohio
Shari Keefe has served as a volunteer parish nurse at Hiram Christian for over four years. Keefe provides monthly health screenings, such as blood pressure checks, to members of the congregation and to people who come to the church for a weekly senior citizen lunch. She writes occasional health and wellness articles for the church newsletter. A significant new effort by Hiram is a medical equipment loan program, where the church collects wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, canes and other durable medical equipment, cleans it up and loans it to members of the community.
First Christian Church – Portland, Oregon
Linda Payne, RN, PN, says the church’s health ministry started in 2007. As the parish nurse and representative of the Health Ministry council, Payne has helped members find health insurance, manage their blood pressure, and find transportation to doctor’s appointments. Payne writes a health-related article twice a month for the church newsletter, has a Wellness Corner bulletin board, has organized a church-wide walk, and teaches Living Well with Chronic conditions, among other things. The health ministry includes two registered nurses, two pharmacists, two doctors (a psychiatrist, and an infectious control specialist), a dentist, a psychologist, the senior minister and the pastoral care minister.
By Wanda Bryant Wills