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A Changing Perspective: A Church's Role in Healthcare

Posted by Rebekah Tuchscherer on
Faith & Health Collaboritive

As America debates the role of government in healthcare, we take time today to look at healthcare through a different lens. Dr. G. Scott Morris, who's the founder and chief executive of Church Health in Memphis, is coming to Sioux Falls on July 27 for the Aging Faithfully Conference at Augustana University. Church Health is a faith-based non-profit organization that cares for the working poor. His ideas on church and healthcare are provocative and at times controversial.

Dr. G Scott MorrisFaith and Health Connection

Listen to the full conversation here.

I want to go back to the early days because it's such a compelling story in the beginning about the Church Health Center and your desire to become a minister and a physician. I know you’ve told the story a hundred times, but for folks in South Dakota who haven't heard it, what made you put healthcare and ministry together on a career path in your mind, and how did you ever figure out a way to follow through on that?

Oh, that second part of the question is more complicated. In terms of how it came to be, I actually grew up in Atlanta, and as a child was always interested in the church, but the thought of preaching 52 sermons a year sent shivers down my spine. It still does. I have no idea how anybody could ever do that. Even as a teenager, I read the Bible and I saw this stuff in there about healing of sick. It is on every page. Effectively, a third of the Bible has to do with healing the sick, but I would look around to see what churches did and there wasn’t much to it.

We would pray for people on Sunday morning. The pastor was expected to visit people in the hospital, a few people that are shut-ins, and that defined our healing ministry. We had built large hospitals that had church names on them. They do good work, and these hospitals exist all over the country, but they have almost nothing to do with worshiping congregations. It seemed to me that there ought to be more to it than that.

As I got older, this became my only real desire professionally. It was either that or pitch for the Atlanta Braves. They never called me, and to this day I don’t understand why. I kept moving forward. I went to college. I went to seminary. I spent most of my time in seminary looking at historically how the church has been connected to the issues of faith and health. I came to realize that there's a reason these hospitals have church names on them. We just forgot what it was.

Then one day, I was in the chaplain's office at the Yale Medical School, and I looked on his desk and there was a little pamphlet that said, "How to start a church-based health clinic," and I said, "That’s it. That’s what I want to do." From that point on, I never turned back, finishing medical school, doing my residency, ready to start my own church-based health clinic. I ended up in Memphis because I literally—not making this up—read somewhere that Memphis was the poorest major city in America, and based on that, I said, "I'm going to Memphis." That was in 1986.

Tell me a little bit about your upbringing and the sort of family support you had for that kind of journey.

My father loved the idea that I was going to be a doctor, and he thought I should go to medical school first and then the seminary because he did not really believe I would do both of them.

Get the most important one down first?

Well, the one that might actually earn a living.

Sure.

The problem is I've always thought of myself as a pastor who acquired a particular skill, and you don’t get rich providing healthcare for the poor. My mother, on the other hand, I think always was supportive. However, my mother died when I was a freshman in college, so she didn’t ever get to fully see the dream. My mother was always supportive, and I feel certain she would be smiling on what I do and have done my whole life.

Dr. G Scott Morris's BookAmazon.com

Let's go back to this notion of a church having a historical role in healing the sick and providing healthcare services. How early does that begin in the life of the Christian church?

In 313, Constantine converts the Roman world to become Christian. Most preachers would tell you that had to be because of great preaching. The truth is, it's because in the second and third centuries throughout Rome, there were plagues all over the Roman world. It was literally only the Christians who stood up to take care of people. When people got better, they would ask both, "Who are you and how can I worship your God?" That is how the church grew. By the time Constantine came to be emperor, the writing was on the wall that the church had enormous power to grow.

It wasn’t about great preaching. It was about taking seriously the healing ministry. From a strictly Biblical standpoint, Luke and Acts, written by the same person, Luke tells the story of Jesus, but Acts is probably the thing he cares the most about. It's about telling us what it would mean to follow Jesus. To do that, you're expected to do three things, to preach, to teach, and to heal. There are 17 recorded acts of healing in the gospel of Luke. There are 19 in the acts of the apostles that come about because of primarily Peter and Paul, two very, very different people. If you want to follow Jesus, you must be engaged in a healing ministry. You don’t get to take a pass on the healing part. You don’t get to say, "I'll let the person who wears white coats do that."

Now if we look just at America, prior to the Civil War, if you were sick, the most likely person anybody would have seen for healthcare was actually a pastor. Pastors provided all the healthcare in America.

When does it start to shift and change to where that’s just not something we consider about church today?

In the late 19th century, several things happen—one, the split between science and religion that comes about because of Darwin. You should never underestimate the influence of Darwin. It's been profound, and we experience it even today. The second thing that happens, is that in the late 19th century, there is an explosion in medical science. There are lots of new ways to treat disease and care for people. It requires real effort and study, and along with that, a rise in a new profession known as medicine that is seen as financially lucrative, and it makes sense to keep the clergy out. The truth is, the clergy are too lazy to keep up with all the new knowledge.

Truthfully, the most important thing during this same timeframe, the late 19th [century], early 20th century, there is a reassertion of a philosophical idea known as Cartesian dualism—Descartes' idea that through recapitulation of Plato that says you can take a human being and separate us into a body and a spirit. We put the body on one side and say it's the purview of science and medicine. We put the spirit on the other and say it's okay for the church and people of faith to mess around with our spirits, but heaven forbid we actually care about our bodies. That becomes the dominant thinking in America, and it remains the dominant thinking in America today, which is why you never heard of any of this stuff I'm talking about.

Right. It's not just the fact that modern science got ahead of the clergy. There's a philosophical divide as well that really impacts the church.

I totally blame Descartes.

Yeah. Blame Descartes.

The truth of the matter is, most people in America today who even claim to be Christians, they're really following Plato.Plato convinced us that the body is the prison house of the soul and what we live on this earth for is for the moment when our spirit can be freed, and the spirit can return to the Divine. That sounds a whole lot like the way many Christians think this works, that when we die, we go to heaven. That might turn out to be true, but that is not a Biblical concept. What the Bible tells us is that we are dust and breath. God in Genesis breathes into the dust of the earth the breath of life, the ruach, and it is only when we are dust and breath that we are fully human.

The body is not the prison house of the soul. The body is seen to not only be good, but to be very good. Everything that Jesus ever talks about embraces the body. The body is never anything that is not good. It's just the opposite. It's the way God fully manifests our own sense of humanity and in our own language as Christians. How much more visceral can we be? We talk about in Communion having the body and blood of Jesus. We define the church as the body of Christ. In all of our creeds, we believe in the resurrection of the body, but that is not how we live, and the best example I could give you is the least healthy meal you could eat every week is at a church. We have blessed the sin of gluttony for the sake of fellowship. [It’s] fundamentally wrong.

All right, so what happens when the body has a defect, has a disease, a chronic disease or illness, a deformity? How do we view our physical selves then in this context?

Yeah, so life is complicated. Disease is part of living just as death is part of life. Trying to escape death at every turn, that is really one of the huge problems we have in medicine. Most doctors these days are going to tell you, "You're not dying on my watch," because death is the enemy. That is not the Christian perspective. The Christian perspective is that death is part of life and that we believe ultimately that body and spirit will be resurrected into a life beyond this world, but we are to focus on this world. Jesus rejects at every turn disease and anything that impacts the body in a negative way, that is not sin. That is just part of the nature of human existence. We are fallible. We are not immortal.

What are we called to do in our own lives, with our own bodies and our own health? Then we'll talk about what we're called to do for others.

We are called to live a life that ultimately achieves the life well-lived. Health is not about the absence of disease. Who cares if you live two years longer if it means two years longer in a nursing home? Life for life's sake cannot possibly be the point. What we ought to be going about doing in both the church and in healthcare, what your doctor ought to care about is not trying to give you pills that don’t work so that you can breathe in and breathe out for a little bit longer. What we ought to be focused on is helping people achieve what I would consider to be the goals for living, and I'm willing to bet you would agree with me. That’s having more joy in your life, having more love in your life, and being driven closer to those things that are greater than we are. I would call that God. If those things aren't happening, then what's the point?

Church Health LogoMemphis Medical Society

What are we called to do in our communities and for others as individual Christians and as congregations, then?

America has fully embraced the concept of individualism, which, again, I find to not be a Biblical concept. Within the life of the church, it has always been a difficult thing. I don’t know if you're familiar with the Desert Fathers, but these are monks who in the second, third, and into the fourth century—mostly in Egypt and the Middle East—would go out into the desert and for 10, 20, 30 years be alone trying to commune with God.

Now not all of them, but many of them ultimately came back to society and wrote about their experience. From my reading of what they said, the gist of it is, "That was a total waste of time. I did not feel closer to God out in the desert. I felt alone. I missed my family. I missed my community. I missed my church. I actually missed those things that brought me closer to God."

You cannot be faithful alone. You must be engaged in community. The Bible tells us that over and over again. This whole idea of being the body of Christ is not just the eye. The eye needs the arm. The arm needs the leg. We need each other. The same is also true about health. You cannot be healthy alone. Nobody's life is made better by being on a stair stepper with headphones. That in and of itself is not enough. Living a healthy life by definition in my mind requires the existence of community. This is why we have church. Even if you're not a Christian, even if you're not a person of faith, if you can't create some sense of community, I feel incredibly sorry for you.

Tell me, what kind of work does the Church Health Center in Memphis do today? How has it grown over the years, and where are you at right now?

We've been around since 1987. September 1st  is our 30th anniversary. We've really done the same work from the day we began up until now. It hasn’t really changed. We exist in order to address the very things we've been talking about. How does the church in today's world take seriously a healing ministry? What would that look like? Well, we believe from a strictly healthcare standpoint it should be about going where the need is greatest, and the need has been greatest for 30 years around people who work in low-wage jobs who don’t have health insurance, so that is our niche.

We provide the healthcare for the people who work to make our lives comfortable. They cook our food, they take care of our children, our grandchildren. They wash our dishes, they cut our grass. They’ll one day dig your grave. They don’t complain. Yet, when they get sick, their options are very few. I don’t want to talk about Obamacare. I will if you want to, but there is no such thing as Obamacare. If you are poor and you happen to be in a state that didn't expand Medicaid, and that’s not true for South Dakota, but for most of the South where we live, the Affordable Care Act has had absolutely no impact on our patients. We currently care for 70,000 people who work in low-wage jobs, who, without our care, have nowhere else to turn.

What we do is, in the name of the church and the community of faith, we provide the same quality of care you would expect your mother to receive. The 70,000 people we take care of, there's not a problem somebody could have from the cradle to the grave that we could not provide the same degree of care that the president of the bank would expect. We do that with 12 full-time physicians. We have a thousand doctors who volunteer with us. We run a family medicine residency. It's a wonder to behold.

Who pays for it? Where does the money come from?

Yeah, so we're a true charity. We're not a federally-funded anything. We're not a federally-funded clinic. The reason for that is that the government cannot do the work of the church, and we shouldn’t ask it to. I don’t know a single church that gets federal funding. That is a joke. Because it can't happen. We raise a little over $20 million a year. The value of the work we do is about $150 million a year when you factor in all the donated services. This morning, I saw two people back-to-back, one with tongue cancer, one with lung cancer. They're going to get the best medical care that Memphis has to offer. It won't cost them a dime because it will all be donated from soup to nuts. It's pretty incredible. The cost of that comes from raising the money and finding donors who will either donate their time or donate dollars.

People from all over the world come and look at this model, ask you questions about it. Are other communities moving in this direction? Are you seeing the idea spread?

Over the years, we've been, in a small way, looking to replicate the work we do. We're now launching out into a very big way of doing this. We created an entity called ECHO, Empowering Church Help Opportunity, funded by a wealthy oilman in Forth Worth, Texas, who, believe it or not, I've only met three times. What ECHO does is work with any community that wants to replicate the church health model. Over the next few years, there's various resources to be out there trying to do this. Who knows what would happen, but I personally think that an unintended consequence of Repeal and Replace might be to open the door for us to create a national network of church-based health clinics, and we're prepared to run through that door.

What have you learned over the years about your own faith as you do this work in the world? How has it changed you?

I'm in Memphis, Tennessee, where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. I am sitting right this minute a mile and a half from the balcony that everybody has probably seen pictures of. It dawned on me many years ago that I have the privilege to take care of the very people that King came to Memphis for, that grew up picking cotton in Mississippi. Oftentimes, they even came to Memphis, and have worked as housekeepers or cut grass.

A very, very common experience for me, is [that] I will walk in to see somebody now who I've been their doctor for almost 30 years. I was 33 when I started and they were probably 50 and now they're 80 and I'm 63. I will ask, "How are you doing?" The answer I invariably get is that, "I am fine and blessed." Really, you are fine and blessed. You have nothing. If the way we value people in America is through their capital, they got no capital. Most of them don’t have any social capital. Their families are oftentimes a mess. What they have is an unbelievable abundance of spiritual capital.

The way these sessions go, is I spend the first half of the time as their doctor, making sure that medically I'm not messing up, I'm not giving them drugs that are going to hurt them, or I'm looking to make sure that they can keep doing what they're doing. Then, the last half of my session, I get to ask the question, "How do I get to be fine and blessed? What do you know about life that I need to know?" That’s a privilege that I've had for 30 years now, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Tell me one of those stories. What did you learn from one of those patients that you remember about how to be fine and blessed? Share it with us. Share the blessing with us.

Ora Alexander has been the housekeeper for one family for almost 50 years. Ora's now 82 years old. Literally, the first time I became her doctor almost 30 years ago, she had high blood pressure and diabetes. That’s right down my alley. I'm treating her for it, and then she's all anxious for me to get ready, through, and I just think she has to go.

Instead, when I'm done, she says to me, "Are you done?" I go, "Yes, ma'am." She goes, "Well, do you want a blessing?" I go, "Well, sure." She reaches into her pocketbook. She pulls out a little vial, which at the time, I didn’t know what it was. I now know it is olive oil from the Holy Land mixed with water from the Jordan River. She says, "Bend over your head," and I go, "Yes, ma'am." At this point, I am no longer in control.

Then, she had a second thought, and she said, "No. Hold out your hand." I hold out my hand. She takes her oil and she makes the sign of the cross on my hand, and she says, "I did that because I know that for the rest of the day, you're going to be touching people just like me, and I want you to be able to pass on this blessing." Every time I see Ora, it's hard for me to pay attention to anything else, because I'm just waiting for my blessing. She gives me one every time she comes.

Dr. G Scott Morris helping a patientMemphis Daily News

All right, you're a physician, you're a pastor. Do you believe in miracles?

Yeah, I believe in miracles, maybe not exactly the way you are asking me that question. Do we have time for one more quick story?

Absolutely.

I see this woman's who's 42 years old. Forty-two-year-old women don’t have heart attacks, but she's having a heart attack. She ends up in the hospital. She has a bypass operation. Things go well except for 24 hours after her surgery, she loses the pulse in her right leg; 24 hours after that, she loses the pulse in her left leg. She ends up getting both legs amputated at the waist. Her life is changed. At that point, I become her doctor.

Everything goes relatively well for a while, and then one day she has this pain in her back. I can't figure out what it is. I do a thousand tests. Everything's normal. I see her on a Friday afternoon. I go, "Look, come back on Monday and we're going to do one more test." She goes, "Fine." She doesn’t make it till Monday. She ends up in the hospital. I go to see her. I think she's asleep, only she's not asleep. She's in a coma. We end up in the intensive care unit with a tube stuck down her throat.

Every doctor in the hospital sees her. We never figured it out. She just gets better. She comes to see me, and then after I check her out, she's back to normal, she says to me, "Dr. Morris, do you remember the last time I was here on that Friday?" 'Yes, ma'am, I remember." She goes, "Do you remember what we did?" I go, "Yes, ma'am, I remember it really clearly." Because before she left, the day before she's admitted to the hospital, she asked me, "Could we have a prayer before we leave that I might be healed?"

Look, I'm a Methodist minister as well as her doctor. Of course, I offer her a prayer, but I'm now thinking, "Now if I'm her, what would I be thinking? I would be probably thinking what kind of God is this? We have a prayer that I might be healed," and literally within 24 hours, she's at death's doorstep. Instead, what she says to me is, "Dr. Morris, what do you think would have happened if we had not had that prayer?" I would say that was a miracle.

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Meet me in the Hills! In the Moment heads to the South Dakota Festival of Books for a live broadcast from the Deadwood Mountain Grand. It's my favorite event of the year, and much reading awaits. I'm currently deep into the sweetness of "Braiding Sweetgrass." Here are a few other titles waiting on the nightstand.