You Can’t Take it With You

Don't you think I look pretty cool in a hardhat?

Don’t I look cool in a hardhat?

Every Thursday for the past few months, I’ve taken part in a hardhat tour of the new Crosstown Concourse building. The massive structure is being transformed in remarkable ways and will be the home of the Church Health Center in Spring 2017.

The sounds of jackhammers and machinery fill the tours. Crews have just begun installing 3,200 windows one-by-one. It is exciting to watch and thrilling to consider the Church Health Center’s future there.

While I am truly looking forward to the move, I will miss some things we will leave behind on our Peabody Campus that few others even know exist. Much of it is embedded in my memories, but there are concrete memories as well.

I mean literal concrete.

You Can't Take it With You

The week before the Church Health Center opened in 1987, the rehab crew poured the concrete for the driveway. Before it was set, the eight of us who were here and ready to greet our first patients went out and signed our names in a corner of the parking lot. Occasionally, I go and take a look at the spot. Remarkably three of us are still here: Robert Phillips, who works on our facilities staff, Kim Simmons, who helps with administrative duties, and me. It is hard to make out the names, but I can tell who signed where.

It's hard to make out the names, but they're there.

It’s hard to make out the names, but they’re there.

At the Church Health Center, we're all about repurposing things. Long before the old Sears Crosstown was reimagined as Crosstown Concourse, our old x-ray room was transformed into a break room!

At the Church Health Center, we’re all about repurposing things. Long before the old Sears Crosstown was reimagined as Crosstown Concourse, our old x-ray room was transformed into a break room!

Then there is the window in the break room at 1210 Peabody. I am sure many people have eaten in that room without realizing that it once was where we took x-rays. The window is there so that the x-ray tech could look in to see what was being shot. The drywall in the room is lined with lead. It will never fall down.

What is now the kitchen in 1210 used to be the lab. The cabinets were designed and built by a cabinetmaker in south Memphis. He had never made anything for a medical clinic, so they look a lot like cabinets you would find in your home. They have served us well.

I also will miss the carpet going up the stairs to my office. It is only there because Jean Campbell, my longtime friend and fundraising partner, used to trip on the steps on an almost daily basis. We had a big disagreement about putting runners on the steps: I thought carpet would detract from the beauty of the wood. She thought without the carpet, she would break her neck.

She won.

When Jean died, we bought a clock for the volunteer room from which so many donor letters have been mailed. The clock is to remind everyone that Jean expected people to receive a thank-you from us within 24 hours. My wife Mary and my friend and colleague Ann Langston, who has been at my side for so many years at the Church Health Center, picked out the clock. An ornamental piece, the clock doesn’t actually function at all. I have never understood why they bought a clock that doesn’t keep time. They just thought it had the look that Jean would have liked, and I am sure they are right.

Jean's clock is now accompanied by a Crosstown Concourse rendering. The past and the future are coupled together.

Jean’s clock is now accompanied by a Crosstown Concourse rendering, a reminder of how the past and the future are always coupled.

In the clinic, one of the rooms where I always see patients is designed with a Barney the Dinosaur theme. Most of our staff know that the Barney room is in memory of Scott Wallace. His mother was once a physician with us. During the time that she worked here, her three-year-old son, Scott, died of leukemia. He died on my birthday, and I had the privilege of conducting his funeral. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.

To remember him, we decorated an exam room with a Barney theme because he loved Barney. I realize that SpongeBob and others have replaced Barney in the hearts and minds of today’s children, but that will not ever matter to me. While we will need to find fresh wall hangings, I can assure you that we will have a Barney room in the new space. As it happens, Scott’s mother, Febe Wallace, was in town and came for a visit just last week. When she went to visit the Barney room, there was not a dry eye to be found.

Church Health Center bus stop

Even bus stops are laden with history at the Church Health Center.

We will also not be taking the brick area out by the bus stop. One of our clinic assistants years ago came to me and said, “I have noticed people stand waiting for the bus in the mud. I don’t know anything about medicine yet, but I am good with my hands. Would it be okay if I built a brick pad for them to stand on?”

His name is John Huber, and he is now a well-respected dermatologist in Memphis. While he has volunteered to see many patients for us, I will always remember him for that brick waiting pad.

Next to that is Rob’s bench. Rob volunteered for us when he was a student at Rhodes. He and I used to play racquetball together. (I always won.) He went to medical school and was going to be a great doctor and come back to work with us. But his girlfriend died in a traffic accident, and he never got over the loss. A year to the date after she died, he took his own life. His mother and friends gave the bench in his memory.

We will find a way to take that bench with us.

McRae HouseLastly, we will not be able to take McRae House with us. Frank McRae was like a second father to me. He gave me the chance to find a home at St. John’s Methodist Church and be an associate minister there. Because he trusted me and my vision, he took his entire pastor’s discretionary fund to buy a dilapidated boarding house that would become our initial clinic. We named our building on the corner at 1216 Peabody after him. Initially, I made the plaque as small as possible as a joke to keep him from getting a big head, but a few years ago Ann had a new one made that is more appropriate. A little over a year ago Frank died, so he will not care that we leave the building with his name on it and move on. That is what has to happen to advance this ministry and any other, but I will miss just seeing it every day and thinking about Frank and what he meant to me, the Church Health Center, and Memphis.

You can never take with you all that has meant something in your life or the life of an organization. But I do hope we will not let these places and items be lost from the collective memory of the Church Health Center. They are important parts of who we are.


Top 10 Church Health Center Myths

After doing the work of the Church Health Center for almost 28 years, it is easy for me to come to work every day and think nothing has changed. After all, my office is in the same room it has always been, and in my head I am still 33 years old. (Please don’t laugh.)

There have, however, been enormous changes to our ministry in those past 28 years, and even more are on the horizon with the move to Crosstown Concourse well on the way. As a result, many people misunderstand the extent of the work we are doing. Here are the 10 most common misconceptions people have of the Church Health Center.

Top 10 Myths about the Church Health Center

1. We are a small clinic on the corner.

Actually, we are the largest privately-funded, faith-based clinic in the country, caring for over 70,000 working but uninsured patients. We help faith communities all over Memphis establish health ministries in their congregations. Our Wellness facility boasts an affordable gym and a demonstration kitchen where everyone in our community is welcome. We have a preschool because we believe that education is a health issue.

We are a clinic, but we are so much more. We’re moving the needle on health disparities and helping people live their healthiest, happiest lives.

2. Because of the Affordable Care Act, the Church Health Center is no longer needed.

There were 26 million uninsured Americans when we opened our doors in 1987. Fast forward to 2010 when the ACA began, and that number had risen to between 50-60 million plus the immigrant population. The ACA has helped 11 million people get health insurance, but that means there are millions more uninsured people now than when we began. The ACA has too many gaps to count, and the Church Health Center fills those gaps.

3. We only treat colds and minor illnesses.

Not even close. We care for the full gamut of healthcare needs because the uninsured get sick with the same things that the insured do. From broken bones to life-threatening cancer, our 1,000 physician volunteers allow us to achieve our goal of providing the same quality of care you would want your mother to receive. We offer dentistry and optometry. We offer counseling services and physical therapy. We’re here to care for your whole body, mind, and spirit.

4. We are just a doctor’s office.

In fact, our goal is that for every dollar we spend on treatment we spend a dollar on prevention. Our wellness programs are extensive, ranging from nutrition, to fitness, to spiritual care.

5. Our Wellness Center is just for our patients.

It is actually open to everyone in our community, uninsured and insured alike. There are no income requirements to become a member. Anyone can join and pay on a sliding scale according to their income.

FM berries6. Our Wellness Center is just a gym.

It is actually a Certified Medical Fitness Center. That means we have staff trained to help you return to your highest level of wellness after you have had a stroke, knee surgery, or heart attack. Church Health Center Wellness also houses Child Life, which is far more than daycare for your kids while you run on the treadmill. Church Health Center Child Life offers engaging staff and curricula that prepare our youngest members to be healthy for life.

Need more proof that Church Health Center Wellness is more than a gym? We host a farmers market during the summer. When was the last time you bought a locally-grown tomato at the chain gym up the street?

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Have you received your copy of the Church Health Reader? Subscribe here!

7. We are only touching lives in Memphis.

Actually, we are a national, even international organization. Our magazine Church Health Reader is read all over the world and we are the home of the International Parish Nurse Resource Center, which has trained over 15,000 nurses worldwide to work in faith communities.

8. Health is only about what the doctor does.

That actually has very little with being healthy; 10%, to be precise. For that reason, we run a preschool called Perea. We have a wide array of health programs that have nothing to do with the doctor. We believe that change in healthcare starts with you. Healthcare we can live with starts with growing a new culture that features dignity, community, giving, and prevention.

9. We are a government-funded health clinic.

Nope. We keep our doors open because of the generosity of the wonderful people in our community, congregations, businesses, and foundations. We must raise almost $14 million a year to keep our doors open.

10. I am about to retire.

Sorry, that’s a myth too. I will retire only when I cannot physically come to work. Antony Sheehan has joined the Center as the President and is helping to lead us to our new home at Crosstown, but he and I are working side-by-side and will be doing that for years to come.

The most important point I am making is that the Church Health Center will and needs to exist in perpetuity. Jesus said that the poor will always be among us, so we will, too.

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The ACA Lives, but Healthcare Gaps Remain


A couple weeks ago, the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act. The vote was 6-3, which makes me think that even the conservative judges realized that eliminating the current way the Exchange works would create chaos for millions of people and our healthcare system in general.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe that the Supreme Court’s decision is good and wise. The truth, however, is that nothing has really changed. The flaws in the healthcare system are still there whether or not the Supreme Court gives it its stamp of approval. I know this firsthand because at the Church Health Center, more than 90% of our patients are ineligible for a subsidy from the Exchange.

Our patients – all of whom are employed – will continue coming to us when they are sick.

Many of our patients and countless others all over the United States continue to struggle in this post-ACA landscape. If they go to the ACA website and enter their income information, they will be referred to their state’s Medicaid program for help. But in Tennessee and every state in the South except Arkansas, the state legislatures have refused to expand Medicaid. That means that anyone whose income is below 138% of the poverty level receives no benefit from the ACA.

Yes, that is right: the poorest people get nothing.

If a single person makes less than $16,000 or a family of four makes less than $32,000, they receive no help with purchasing health insurance. They are on their own. Even those who are eligible for subsidies through the Exchange sometimes face difficult decisions. If a single mother works three jobs and has three children and makes $33,000, she will be able to buy a policy for $150 a month for herself, but that is $150 she might not have budgeted. The policy will have a $5,000 deductible. Not a day goes by that one of my female patients doesn’t ask me what I would do if I were in her position. I cannot honestly say that I would purchase the policy, but she knows that if she does not, she is breaking the law.

It is hard to believe, but these are the facts.

The gaps are real.

The system is broken.

People are dying.

It is clear that the Supreme Court did not solve our healthcare issues. Our system is not designed to provide affordable care to our most vulnerable populations, but I am confident that America can do better than that.

In the wake of Independence Day, surely we will remember that a great country is judged on how it treats those whom the Bible calls “the least among us.”