How Will You Say “Welcome”?

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.

These words from Emma Lazarus’s poem “New Colossus” appear on the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus’s words have inspired generations of people who have come to America seeking a new life, safety, the opportunity to flourish.

But I have to ask: How do these words jive with the position of the United States on the refugees coming out of Syria and Iraq today?

How Will You Say Welcome

Our government has made clear there will be no increase in our current quota for immigrants. While the US has said it will accept 10,000 Syrians in the next year, that number is part of a total of 75,000 immigrants slated to be accepted for the year—from the entire world. A few years ago, Antony Sheehan, the Church Health Center’s president, had to win a lottery to get a visa to enter the US from the UK, which is not a major source of terrorists the last time I checked.

In contrast, Germany just agreed to admit 500,000 Middle Eastern immigrants this year.

But the number of people fleeing ISIS brutalities is in the millions.

Last summer, the immigrants fleeing war and torture in Central America caught our attention because they were on our southern border. This summer, Syrian refugees have been pouring into Eastern Europe. That’s far enough away that since the refugees are no longer camped out at the Budapest train station, their story is not leading the news. And whatever happened to all of the children who came alone across the Texas border last year?

How can we turn our backs?

In the Gospel of Matthew, after Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph flee at night to Egypt because of their fear of a despotic ruler. As Christians, how do we not see the parallel in our own time? We worship Jesus, but would we turn him away at our borders if he wanted to be a part of our community? This cannot be what the adult Jesus would expect from us.

The #1 message of hope the New Testament offers us is to “Fear not.”

But what could be more fearful than leaving your home and all you know to become a stranger in a strange land—especially when a treacherous journey with your small children seems like the safest option, your best hope of keeping them alive?

It is clear that the followers of Jesus are expected to offer hospitality to strangers. I am betting that at the end of time, we will be judged not on how we responded to the issues we face in our very wealthy society, but on what we did when those who had nothing came knocking at our door.

When that day comes, may we all confidently know that we did all we could to say, “Welcome.”

Until then, keep the image of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in your mind. How will you welcome them?


Making a Difference With a Simple Idea


Twenty-eight years ago, a nurse and I saw 12 patients at 1210 Peabody. Since then, the Church Health Center has grown to handle more than 42,000 patient visits at our clinic each year.

Last week, we celebrated a very special day at the Church Health Center. On September 1, our organization turned 28.

Twenty-eight years of providing healthcare to the working uninsured of Shelby County, Tennessee. Twenty-eight years of helping our neighbors live healthier lives. Twenty-eight years of filling the gaps in healthcare. Linda, a Center staffer in our 1210 building, brought in a nice spread of ice cream to help us celebrate.

But for me, the day was essentially pretty ordinary. I saw patients. I went to meetings. I tried to raise money to help sustain our ministry. This is just what I do.

The previous Saturday wasn’t so ordinary, though. I spoke at the TEDx Memphis event. Now, I am no stranger to public speaking. I run my mouth every day and have spoken to audiences much larger than the group assembled for TEDx. I’m a preacher, for Pete’s sake! But without a doubt, I have never been so nervous as I was when I rehearsed my talk and when I finally took the stage. It was like giving an 18-minute soliloquy in a play.

In order not to mess up, I had a few notes written on my hand. I didn’t need them, but it was a nice crutch.

talk to the hand

Gratefully, I wasn’t the only one who had anxiety over my TED experience. Even my friend Rob Carter, the CIO for FedEx, was nervous and talks to groups of 5,000 on a regular basis.

What I talked about was in some ways a summary of where the Center has been the last 28 years, but more importantly, where I hope we will be going for the next 28.

I realize I discuss our new home at Crosstown a lot – and of course, I was able to bring it up  in the Q&A session after my talk – but it is the ideas of the Church Health Center that make us who we are. In my TEDx talk, I emphasized a better way to care for people’s health based on the virtues of gentleness, kindness, compassion, humility, patience and love. In today’s healthcare landscape, it’s often difficult to see those virtues in action, but I’m convinced that they make life worth living and that the Center has found a way to care for people that embraces these virtues in all that we do.

I took a cool splash in the dunk tank at Rock for Love this year. It's a pretty refreshing way to raise funds for the Center!

I took a cool splash in the dunk tank at Rock for Love this year. It’s a pretty refreshing way to raise funds for the Center!

So while we didn’t have grand plans for a big Church Health Center birthday celebration – last weekend’s Rock for Love benefit was enough – we do have plans to build on what we have learned over the years we have been open. My TEDx talk tried to capture this. If you didn’t get to see it in person, it should be on the web sometime next week. I’ll be sure to post it on my Facebook page. (Click here to follow.)

But until then, remember that it’s the ideas that make the difference. Let your virtues – or the notes scribbled on the palm of your hand – be your guide.