Welcoming the Sick and the Stranger:
A United Methodist Free Clinic Opens in New Orleans
by Betty Backstrom
New Orleans, LA, Dec. 4, 2007--Connie Thomas, pastor of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in New Orleans, stood with tears in her eyes as nurses and doctors treated patients during the opening of a free clinic housed in Mt. Zion’s Family Life Center in late November.
"This is cutting edge ministry," she said, referring to the new clinic known as “Luke’s House. "Here is a chance for United Methodists to do hands on work, helping those in need as they recover from Hurricane Katrina."
Mt. Zion Church, badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005, is situated in an underserved area of the city. “Many of the residents are uninsured and need free health care," said Rev. Carol Winn Crawford, pastor of Rayne Memorial United Methodist Curch, a partner in the project. "A lot of children live in the area surrounding Mt. Zion."
An African American couple with a young child visited with church volunteers as they waited to see the doctor on Wednesday night of the opening. During the conversation, the volunteers discovered that the family was homeless and in need of food. “We were able to provide food items from the Mt. Zion pantry and give them housing vouchers that had been purchased by Rayne from the Salvation Army," said a smiling Thomas.
In addition to former residents who have returned to the Central City area, a growing Hispanic population of workers who have arrived to participate in reconstruction is also in need of services. “We hope not only to provide medical help, but to wrap them into the conference’s Hispanic Ministry," said Rev. Oscar Ramos-Gallardo, a missionary of the General Board of Global Ministries, who is helping to expand established Hispanic ministries in New Orleans and throughout the Louisiana Conference.
Who Are These People?
An Ecuadorian couple came in during the opening of "Luke’s House" because the husband had a health concern. After Ramos-Gallardo spoke to the couple, the man’s wife decided that she would also see the doctor. "She spoke with the nurse and a few tests were done. The medical staff discovered that she was anemic, and quite ill. The physician said that if she had not been taken care of that night, she would have been in the emergency room in a few days, in serious condition," said Jiselle Bock, executive director for the free clinic.
While waiting to be checked out, the husband asked the interpreter, "Well, who are these people?" Ramos-Gallardo answered, "These are volunteers from The United Methodist Church."
"The man said that he could never remember feeling so welcome anywhere in America," Bock recalled. "He couldn't believe how patient and friendly everyone had been with him, and he said that he just felt so much love at the clinic."
Ramos-Gallardo, thinking that the man had just arrived in the United States, asked him how long he had been in the country.
"I came to America in 1969," The Ecuadorian replied.
Dr. Susan Berry, medical director for the clinic and a member of Rayne Church, was amazed at how everything fell into place so that the clinic could open as quickly as it did. “A lot of hard work certainly paid off, but it was remarkable that things just seemed to work out miraculously," said Dr. Berry, also an associate professor for the Louisiana State University Medical School.
One of those little miracles involved Dr. Betty Lo, a professor in the Medical/Pediatrics department at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. After expressing an interest in a partnership with Luke's House, Berry and Lo established an agreement with the pediatric resident physicians at the school. “The residents volunteered every night for the opening and have agreed to staff the clinic regularly on Tuesday nights," said a jubilant Bock.
Assistance from Many Quarters
Other key elements needed for the clinic seemed to fall into place in the weeks prior to the opening. "Luke’s House" is working with the St. Vincent de Paul Pharmacy to obtain medications for patients. "We received close to 1,000 pounds of donated supplies from a physician in upstate New York. Dr. Joseph Lalka happened to be retiring the week before our opening, and offered us supplies from his office," said Dr. Berry. "That gift saved us thousands of dollars."
The three-night opening went smoothly thanks in large part to the dozens of volunteers that came from as far away as Washington, Pennsylvania and Nebraska. "Dr. Jim Jantzen and his wife Amy, who is a registered nurse, not only helped to staff the clinic, but helped to set up before the clinic before we opened on Tuesday," said Bock. “There also were several volunteers from Nebraska, who regularly serve at Clinic with a Heart, our clinic model."
A Model from Nebraska
The idea of opening a free clinic came from members of volunteer work teams from St. Marks United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. Since December of 2005, a total of 10 teams from Lincoln have been housed at Rayne Memorial while gutting homes through the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Ministry, supported by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). "We became very close to the teams from Lincoln. They even held fundraising campaigns back in Nebraska for the rebuilding of Rayne’s storm damaged sanctuary," said Melissa Erekson, board member for Luke’s House and a member of Rayne Memorial.
Rev. Crawford got to know members of the St. Mark’s volunteer group. Their outreach mission, Clinic with a Heart, came up in conversation. Members of one of the groups met with Rayne’s outreach committee last year to talk about the clinic and how it works.
The Wichita clinic followed up by sending Dr. Rob Rhodes, medical director, and others familiar with Clinic with a Heart, to New Orleans for a presentation on possibilities. This proved to be strong inspiration. The visitors shared documents such as their volunteer manual and operating budget.
As exploration continued, the General Board of Global Ministries sent advisor Ted Warnock to assist the group in planning. Warnock spent four months with the group, helping the board complete the foundational work on forming the clinic, exploring the issues of liability and incorporation.
Private donations and a grant for $84,000 from the Methodist Health System Foundation in Louisiana have provided a core base of funds to launch to clinic. Services through the clinic are available to anyone in need. The area surrounding Mt. Zion is on a major thoroughfare, so the facility is very accessible.
"Luke's House" is a unique development because we provide care in a comprehensive way by offering medical services, mental health counseling, and pastoral counseling," said Bock. "Offering all this and caring for each individual in the spirit of God's love truly makes this a healing ministry." Bock was most recently served in a free clinic in Armenia.
"One thing I am sure of," said Bock, "is that we have the capacity and the resources in this country to make clinics like this one a reality. Countries like Armenia have very little. But we have so much in the United States at our fingertips."
Rev. Larry Norman, director of the Louisiana Conference Volunteers in Mission, will assist with recruiting volunteer medical teams locally and nationally," he said. "The teams will be critical in the success of the project, which will be volunteer-driven. We’ve already been in conversation with a team from Alabama, and we believe this volunteer opportunity will be very successful."
The clinic, currently housed in the Family Life center of Mt. Zion Church serves as a medical facility during the week and a sanctuary on Sunday. "Our church, badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina, is still in need of repair," said Rev. Thomas. "So this examination area is like a M.A.S.H. unit which we take down before services, and put back up again to serve patients during the week. Once we can get appropriate funding to repair the sanctuary, this area will be devoted fully to ‘Luke’s House’."
*Betty Backstrom is conference communicator of The Louisiana Annual Conference.
Date posted: Dec 04, 2007