Churches can provide significant response to health care needs | Print |

By Carla Wynn Davis
CBF Communications

ATLANTA-When Jimmy Lewis was pastor at First Baptist Church in Morrow, Ga., he and another local pastor had a dream—to meet the growing unmet health needs in the county.

Six months later, with the help of volunteers and donated resources, he helped open a free health clinic.

That was 12 years ago. Lewis—now pastor of First Baptist Church in Jasper, Ga.—shared the story during the "Reaching Out to the Sick" special interest session at the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant, Jan. 31 in Atlanta.

Founding leaders committed to treating anyone who was uninsured, regardless of race or other factors. They committed to a holistic approach that included access to counseling, as well as treating each person like "they were the most important person that came in the doors that day," Lewis said.

It started slowly—only six people came in the first two weeks. But now the Good Shepherd Clinic sees more than 50 people a week and has seen more than 5,000 patients since its launch.

"I know we're not taking care of all the needs in Clayton County, but we're taking care of some," Lewis said. "We've found things as serious as cancer. The uninsured is a growing number of people, and it's not just the homeless. It's increasingly becoming people like you and me."
Addressing health care needs in the community did not go without significant challenges, but "it can be done," Lewis said. "It's not an overwhelming task. If you decide that's something God is calling you to do, it can be done."

Free health care clinics are only one way to respond to the country's health crisis, Lewis said. Fleda Jackson, a professor at Emory University, offered other ways churches can help. As the health care system has grown, so has its complexity. Church members can help each another navigate the health system, such as understanding health insurance claims and benefits.

Jackson, who has researched high infant mortality and pre-term births among African-Americans, also advocated for health equity. African-American women have higher rates of pre-term births than Caucasian women, she said, and her research found higher stress rates and social determinants like poverty are partially to blame.

"There is increased evidence that racial stress matters," Jackson said. "And gender stress matters, too. When you take race and then you take gender and then you put poverty together, we have major kinds of risk factors that can affect birth." 

Health equity means working toward all races being equally well, Jackson said. It requires working together, holding on to hope and building on assets instead of deficits. There's also a need for a holistic approach where medical and psychological work together to treat the whole person, she said.

With the rising cost of health care now leaving more than just society's poorest without access to health care, health equity is all the more important to fight for.

"It's no longer just about the poor," Jackson said. "It's about the uninsured, which now can be any of us."

"We must embrace health equity because it's in God's divine order," she said. "We must go fearlessly into the healing waters….with knowledge of the ethical healing ministry of Christ… [who went] healing every disease and sickness of the people."

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