Disarming Fear

I was watching the Olympic trials last night when the local news broke in showing people blocking the bridge over the Mississippi River. A Black Lives Matter rally had turned into an act of civil disobedience of blocking traffic on I-40. It was remarkable to see this happening in my own city of Memphis.

I grew up in Atlanta during the Civil Rights Movement. I remember seeing people in Birmingham being swept away with fire hoses as I watched on TV. I was 14 and in the 8th grade when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis. All of that seemed a long way away, and I was too young to be involved. This time, though, I was watching things happen in the city I love, and I am more than old enough to be involved.

But how? What am I to do?

That is exactly the problem, isn’t it? Much of the time, we don’t know what to do, or at least we claim we don’t. Everyone on all sides feels helpless. No one wants innocent people to be shot by the police, and no one wants the police to be shot while doing their job. We all believe that the police should go about doing their job of protecting all citizens, no matter their race. I believe we all want that, so what is the problem?

The problem, as I see it, is that we are unequal in our society based on perceived differences generated by class and race. None of us can fully know what someone unlike us feels or believes because our experiences are very different. That leads to fear, the progenitor of evil.

Fear drives us apart. Fear makes us see the other as a threat. Fear makes our heart pound and want to reach for the trigger of a gun. Fear makes me cross the street when I see someone who doesn’t look like me walking toward me. Fear is the enemy we must repel.

The power of fear is why, I believe, the overwhelming message of the Gospel is “Be not afraid.” This is what the angels say at Jesus’s birth and what Jesus himself utters to those who follow him. The fact that we have not heard the message leads us to the divisiveness we are enduring.

Eliminating fear is not so easy. It helps, though, to follow Abraham Lincoln’s advice: “I don’t like that man. I need to get to know him better.”

Jesus ultimately calls us to love our neighbor. There’s a process in that, and I think it might just start with getting to know our neighbor’s name.

In my city of Memphis, I will offer a kind word to strangers, especially those who look different from me. It is at least a place to start.


Our Already-Great America

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has said a great deal about making America great again. I had a conversation with one of our clinic interpreters who showed me why America is great now.

Our Already-Great America

Image credit: “Unity Amidst Diversity” by eddypau

Ambar was born in Mexico. When she was a young child, her father came on a visa to work in Los Angeles. Because he was worried about issues of gang violence in LA, he moved his family to Memphis, where Ambar and her sister grew up. Four years ago Ambar married a young man from Mississippi.

From here on, this story gets complicated. You may need to pull out your atlas.

Ambar’s husband grew up in Mississippi, but his parents did not. His father is from Morocco and his grandmother is from Spain. Ambar’s husband’s mother is from Korea. His mother’s sister married an African-American US soldier who moved the whole family from Korea to Mississippi.

Ambar’s Mexican-born sister recently married an Indian man who grew up in England. At their wedding, there was a traditional Indian service, the bride was painted in henna, and there was also a Mariachi band.

So to recap: Mexican, Moroccan, Korean, Spanish, Indian, and British heritages all mingled together to make up your average family living in north Mississippi and Memphis.

No matter how you look at it, surely that is what makes America great.

Religiously, we have mixed Catholic, Muslim, Hindi, Sikh, Protestant Christian, and Buddhist.
I am guessing that makes God smile. I am not so naive as to think this family does not have cultural challenges. Questions about how to raise their children are certain to abound. But the richness of their lives from the amazing diversity is certain to bring a fullness to life that is not easy to come by.

America truly is a country of immigrants. I know that my life is made richer by my experience of other points of view both culturally and when it comes to how God is made known.

America does not need to be made great again. It already is.

Planting Apple Trees While Bullets Fly By

Memphis’ recent mayoral election in many ways turned on the issue of safety in America. Much of the national presidential debate is on the same topic. People seem to be afraid for their personal safety. It is no longer just war in the Middle East but war just down the street from where I live.

This has become much more real for me through events that have happened at or near Perea, the preschool the Church Health Center has run for 16 years in Memphis’ Klondike neighborhood. Four times since the school year began, our preschool, along with the elementary school where we are housed, has gone on lockdown due to a shooting on or near the school’s playground. I didn’t know about the first two occurrences, but then six weeks ago it happened again.

Planting Trees

I rushed to the school as though there was something I could do. John Wayne, I am not. When I arrived, Perea’s principal Alicia Norman calmly explained what had happened. A city-run community center sits right behind the school. During a basketball game, two rival gang members had a disagreement on the court. To settle the dispute, one chased the other out the door firing at him as he ran through the school playground. She then told me about the last episode a few weeks ago when she and another teacher were outside and the bullets went flying past her.

We walked down to the community center and found the one full-time employee. He was nice enough and seemed to fully understand our concern. He then explained to us all the reasons there was nothing he could do.

“If they are not playing basketball, they will be out in the streets taking it out on each other.”

This occurred right after the recent election for mayor. I called my longtime friend AC Wharton, who had just lost his bid to be re-elected mayor. He immediately took my call and swung into action. There were police everywhere. The next day, the chief of police was at the school. A plan was made to erect a chain link fence so that the gang members would be forced to run away from the school, not toward it, if they were trying to escape the community center. We all felt that we had been heard. For a couple of days there were extra police patrols in the neighborhood.

The day after the incident, I bought lasagna for the teachers and took it to them for lunch. Everyone seemed to appreciate the effort and understood there was little else that could be done.

Last week, there was another shooting.

Again, it started at the community center. This time it began with a craps game that went bad. The fence kept those involved from running toward the school, but the shooters got in their car and drove multiple times through our parking lot looking for the person they had shot. When the police arrived, Alicia showed them the bullet casings and drops of blood on the pavement. An hour later, they found the man who had been shot.

I called one of the Church Health Center’s board members, who is now working closely with the new mayor. She listened closely and understood my concern. She pointed out that the police department is woefully understaffed with police officers.

Nevertheless, the next day, an all-seeing police eye-in-the-sky camera appeared in our parking lot. The chief of police was again at Perea. Surely this will be a deterrent to anyone who might be afraid of getting caught. Won’t it? Don’t you think? I wonder how long they will keep it there.

Since the first of the year, there have been 12 murders in Memphis.

I stand behind what we are doing at Perea, and I know our parents are committed to seeing their children grow up to live long, happy, productive lives. Through our work at Perea, we are trying to reverse the statistics that tell us that many of our boys will end up in gangs and in jail. One or more of them could be the target of a shooting or the one holding the gun.

Last Friday, a dozen volunteers from the Memphis Empty Bowls Project packed a mountain of food so that our Perea children and their families could be sent home with healthy meals for the weekend.





The volunteers were so excited about what they were doing for the children. It brought a tear to my eye and I truly had nothing to do with causing it to happen. Our children are so worth loving and they quickly return that love. I doubt the volunteers know about the shootings. If they did, what would they think?

When asked what he would do if he learned that the world would end tomorrow, Martin Luther famously said, “I would still plant my apple tree.”

I intend to stay on top of my friend in the mayor’s office to keep the camera in place. I probably need to bring something other than lasagna for lunch the next time. I also need to find an hour to help with packing the weekend lunches.

When his disciples asked who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus was clear when he placed a child in the center and called all of us who chose to follow him to be like that child.

The name Perea comes from the place where Jesus was when he said, “Let the little children come unto me”.

I think that place could have just as well been named “Memphis”.


On Loving Memphis

Last week, I was on a walk while on vacation near San Francisco. It was an extremely pleasant day. Nevertheless, one person after the other walked past me without saying a word. Everyone seemed preoccupied.

Finally, a man got out of a truck and greeted me.

“It’s another beautiful day!” he said. I agreed. Then he added, “It’s why we live here.” He seemed pleased with his statement.

I thought to myself, Really, you chose your home based on the weather?

Maybe that was just something to say to a stranger, but it got me thinking about why we chose to live in Memphis. I doubt it is because of the weather, and there are certainly other places that are more aesthetically beautiful. We don’t have mountains and we don’t have an ocean; we have a big, muddy river.

So why choose Memphis for our home?

Loving Memphis

To start with, I cannot imagine walking down the street here and not being spoken to, stranger or not. People here know that our greatest strength is our connection to each other. When I came to Memphis 30 years ago to start the Church Health Center, I was a stranger, relying completely on the goodwill of those around me to help establish our health ministry. Yet I was embraced and the Center has flourished.

I often say that Memphis has two things in great abundance: poverty and religion. Both, I think, shape the fabric of our city and why I for one chose to call Memphis home. While great poverty is not something to strive for, its presence here makes us all grateful for what we do have. I am privileged to have spent years with people who have little material wealth but who have used their spiritual capital to find peace and strength of character in a complex world.

When asked, “How are you?,” they answer without thinking:

Fine and blessed.

And they are.

As for religion, where else is one of the first questions you are asked, “Where do you go to church?”

Even if your answer is Temple Israel, “church” is just code for how you connect with something greater than yourself. I realize many among us believe they have a unique pathway to God, but I am so glad to live in a place where who I am is not just defined by what I have.

While many will quickly point out that the river, our four seasons, and fishing and hunting and our sports teams make Memphis a desirable home on many levels, I chose to live here because I have found love and a true sense of purpose in this big small town.

If you love Memphis, Memphis will love you.

Are you in New York City? I encourage you to connect with Choose901 this week to learn more about making Memphis home. Click here to learn more. 

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.

Diabetes Doesn’t Have to Give You the Blues

The world lost a friend last Friday when bluesman B.B. King passed away. Since being diagnosed with type II diabetes 25 years ago, B.B. showed his love to the Church Health Center’s home city of Memphis and was vocal about his type II diabetes, urging others to check their blood sugar levels often. I’m grateful for the many years of enjoyment that he gave people with his guitar “Lucille.”  I only briefly met him once, but I could tell he was full of energy and loved life.


Source: travelsouthusa.com

During that meeting, he joked about the soft drink and fried foods he was eating. “I know this isn’t good for my diabetes, Doc”. It’s funny how people become hyper-aware of their health habits when I come around! But as I see it, King was like all too many men who view their diabetes as, simply, “the hand they were dealt.” In his view, there was little he could do about his diabetes, and he represented a disconnect between knowledge, fatalism and personal empowerment I see all too often among my own patients.

Source: travelsouthusa.com

The problem begins with the patient not fully understanding what diabetes is all about. “I have sugar” is how it is often expressed to me, and I have never fully understood what those words mean to people. It usually implies “I eat too many sweets,” but it is rarely connected to the effect of the microvascular disease consequences of diabetes.

I usually describe adult-onset diabetes like this. Everything you eat, no matter what it is, is churned up in your stomach and turned into sugar. That sugar then goes into your bloodstream and is carried to all of the cells of your body. For the healthy patient, the body makes insulin that then grabs ahold of the sugar and pushes it into the cells. Once inside, the cells turn the sugar into energy, which is how we live.

Diabetes is a disease where there is something wrong with your body’s insulin. We know this because when we prick your finger to measure how much sugar is in your blood, your sugar is staying in your blood rather than getting into the cells.

I often use this analogy:

Say I am trying to dig a hole and I hire a man to do the job. Only, it turns out he is lazy and just piddles around. What can I do to get the job done? One option is to hire several lazy men. Although their work ethic leaves much to be desired, if I hire enough of them they will eventually get the job done.

This is effectively how most of our drugs work. Even though your own body’s insulin is “lazy”, the drugs tell it to make more insulin and if we get enough of it in the blood we can cause the insulin to push the sugar into the cells of your body. This is helped by eating the right foods and exercising.

Most people seem to understand this analogy. What they don’t always appreciate is that the consequences of diabetes over time are permanent and devastating. Blindness, stroke, dialysis, and amputation are all-too-common outcomes.

B.B. King was actually very lucky to live 25 years without these more serious consequences affecting him until late in his life. Others aren’t so lucky. Part of the tragedy of diabetes is that it affects the poor in more devastating ways because the lack of knowledge and access to medicine and healthy foods. Even after his legs were amputated, my father’s best friend drank chocolate Yoo-hoos several times a day because “no one was going to tell him what he could do”. He died from a stroke when he was 63 years old.

The good news is that for most people, diabetes is either preventable or manageable through diet, exercise, and the right medication. In the last 20 years, our knowledge of the disease has progressed tremendously. We now have dozens of effective treatment options, and we know much more about the role of diet in the prevention of the progression of the disease. Key to living with diabetes is an internal motivation to live a healthy life and avoid the foods and lifestyle choices we know are unhealthy. Yet in a world where we are surrounded by soft drinks, fried foods, and healthcare that isn’t focused on prevention, this is simply easier said than done.

Diabetes is more than “a hand you were dealt.” It’s something that you can control and live beyond. Honor the memory of B.B. King by taking control of your diabetes today.

Meeting Richard Rohr

This last weekend at the Church Health Center was certainly a full one! With our annual community walk Walking as One going on at our Wellness facility and the Westberg Symposium for faith community nurses in full swing at the Peabody Memphis Hotel, the Church Health Center was certainly living out its mission of helping others live their healthiest, most joy-filled lives.

Dr Morris westberg

Named after Granger Westberg who held an unwavering conviction that the church can do more to help people find healing, the Westberg Symposium focuses on helping faith community nurses help others all over the world.

My colleague at the Church Health Center Antony Sheehan was even named an honorary Peabody Duckmaster, if you can believe it.

Antony Sheehan as Honorary Duckmaster

Antony really gets to have all the fun.

I had one more item on my weekend agenda, though, that had nothing to do with ducks. I spent a portion of the weekend in Albuquerque with Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation. Some of you might know his writings very well, which include Everything Belongs, Adam’s Return, and The Naked Now. I admit I had not read anything of his before the weekend, but I am now a big fan.

Scott Morris and Richard Rohr

Fr. Rohr, a provocative and excellent communicator, has devoted himself to a life of contemplation yet spends a great deal of time teaching others about the contemplative life. He’s carved out his niche in speaking to people in positions of power about the spiritual life; almost everyone at the small event was the CEO of a major company. He begins his seminars with ways to become powerless.

Of all the things he said, his emphasis on the power of being present with others resonated most with me. Achieving full presence requires great effort and focus that cannot be faked; you have to live in the moment. This is an idea I have talked about for years and try hard to practice, but it is so hard. It is easy to always be looking over the person’s shoulder you are talking to for someone more important or more interesting. As humans, we are prone to think of the next thing we want to say or the next thing we want to do. However, only by being fully-present in the moment do you have a chance to know what God has in store.

Fr. Rohr also points out that Christians do not have a lock on knowing what God wants for our lives. He quotes Hindu scriptures that were written 2,500 years before Jesus and shows how what they say sound a lot like what we read in the Bible. We are wrong to think that only our “tribe” has all the answers. In fact, such “tribalism” is exactly why the world is threatening to blow apart today. None of us knows God in a way that is exclusive to our small band of followers. We need to learn from others if we ever want to grow.

My goal was to get him to come to Memphis, but he explained to me that now that he is 72 he no longer travels. But I now have a long list of his writings to read. I am starting with Falling Upward which is what much of his thoughts over the weekend reflected. What was equally good was I made several new friends who are working around the country to make a difference in God’s world just like we are here in Memphis.