Building a health and wellness ministry wasn’t something that Lee necessarily wanted to do, he explains. It was something he had to do. For four years, from 1992 to 1996, Lee watched his father grow sick, weaken, and eventually die at age 68 from prostate cancer—a disease that might have been successfully treated if caught early with a simple exam. But the elder Lee, a laborer for a seafood company in the rural Northern Neck region of Virginia, never had health insurance and, as a result, never got routine physical examinations. By the time he finally underwent a battery of tests at his son’s insistence, it was too late.
“It was one of the most painful events in my life,” recalls Lee. “I thought ‘Here we are in one of the richest countries in the world and poor people can’t get health care.’ There’s no reason for a black man, or a white man, or a pink man to die like this.”
Returning to Roanoke, Lee vowed that nobody would ever die again from prostate cancer or any other disease because of a lack of access to care. Not if he had anything to do with it.
Seeing with New Eyes
Though he’d lived in Roanoke for nearly 20 years, Lee began to see the city with new eyes. For the first time, he realized that the entire northwest quadrant of Roanoke— the city’s historically black section, home to more than 25,000 African Americans—had no physicians’ offices. The area’s one doctor had quit practicing several years earlier.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Lee says. “I realized I was living in a city of 100,000 people, the largest city in southwest Virginia, and it wasn’t doing any more about health care than the little town of Nuttsville where I grew up and where my father died.”
Fortunately, Loudon Avenue, where Lee has been pastor since 1977, had a long history of social engagement. Years earlier, the church had been instrumental in forming a neighborhood partnership with the city, the Northwest Neighborhood Environmental Organization, to revitalize neighborhoods around the church. Working through that organization, church leaders had played a vital role in establishing McRae Courts, a nearby development with housing for the elderly. Loudon Avenue was a church that knew how to build coalitions, a congregation that knew how to make things happen.
With his church’s support, Lee set out to bring health care to northwest Roanoke. Soon, he had brought together a coalition of forces from throughout the community: the city’s public health director; the local hospital, Carilion Health System; social services agencies and others. It was the same strategy Lee’s hero, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., described as applying pressure to the right pressure points.
In April 1999, the coalition was approved for a $355,000 grant from the federal Health Resources Services Agency to start a primary care clinic—the first faith organization to be awarded such a grant. After years of research and planning, the clinic—called the Kuumba Community Health and Wellness Center—opened its doors to patients in December of 2000.
Located in the heart of northwest Roanoke, Kuumba, a Swahili word meaning “creativity,” has a full-time doctor, a physician’s assistant, three nurses, two mental health counselors, and three administrative staff members. A separate, non-profit corporation governed by an independent board of directors, the clinic has about 6,000 patient visits a year. Many patients are covered by Medicare or Medicaid, and those without insurance are charged a sliding-scale fee of $10 to $25, depending on income.
“It’s had a tremendous impact,” says Lee. “For the first time in their adult lives, people have a primary care physician. Their quality of life has changed dramatically.”
Health and Wellness Ministry
While Kuumba is clearly the largest and most impressive of Loudon Avenue’s accomplishments in health care, it’s just part of a broader emphasis on health and wellness that permeates the church’s ministry.
The congregation began a modest health ministry in 1990: a part-time, volunteer parish nurse conducted routine health screenings such as blood pressure checks. This ministry expanded dramatically in 1996, when Carilion, the local health-care system, offered to underwrite the salary for a full-time nurse on Loudon Avenue’s staff. Together, the church’s two parish nurses now see about 700 patients a month, doing everything from blood pressure checks and counseling to working with local pharmacists to make prescriptions more affordable.
In 2000, Loudon Avenue’s health ministry received yet another major boost when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awarded it a Faith in Action Grant. Under that program, the church is coordinating the efforts of several local congregations and other organizations to create a network of volunteers who help community residents get the services they need, including health care, housing and legal assistance.
Health ministries can be a vital addition to any church, but they are particularly appropriate—and needed—in African-American congregations, according to Lee.
“Health care is a genuine issue in our community,” he says. Numerous studies have documented racial disparities in health status and medical care, with blacks much more likely, for example, to suffer from hypertension, stroke, diabetes and other diseases.
The church, Lee contends, is the perfect portal for a people historically under-served by the health-care system.
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