“When people are well, they gather in churches where they feel safe, where the message of healing and caring is already present,” says Lee. “When people call here, they know they’re not going to get the runaround. They can talk with somebody they trust, somebody who can lead them through the maze.”
While many churches measure success based on membership and donations, Lee has his own unique yardstick of progress: telephone lines. When he came to the church in 1977, it had one phone line. Now six phone lines are needed to handle the calls requesting help.
Health and wellness at Loudon Avenue is integrated into the life of the church, including worship.
Every Sunday, informational fliers addressing some aspect of health or a particular disease are in the pews. Two days before the visitors from Richmond came, the Sunday “Health Focus” flier marked Kidney Awareness Month, with 10 facts about kidney disease. Once a month, Lee or one of the parish nurses takes a moment during the Sunday service to talk about a particular health topic.
“This church is constantly on you about health,” says Lee.
A Bold Approach
The Sunday health messages and broader health ministry are not limited to “safe” topics, such as lowering cholesterol. Loudon Avenue’s health ministry does not shy away from difficult issues.
To mark National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness and Information Day, Lee spent several Sundays in February talking about HIV/AIDS impact on the African- American community. It’s a subject that many in the black community and in the black church would prefer not to discuss at all, primarily because of discomfort with homosexuality, says Lee.
On the final Sunday, Feb. 22, Lee closed the worship service by standing up in the pulpit and taking an oral AIDS test. Earlier, in a blistering sermon, he criticized the black community for failing to address the issue of HIV/AIDS, saying it had turned its back on gays and lesbians.
From now on, Lee announced, Loudon Avenue will offer free, confidential HIV/AIDS testing to anybody who wants it. It will be a place of refuge for anyone seeking compassion and understanding, gay or straight.
HIV/AIDS joins a list of screenings, including one with particular meaning for Lee: the annual prostate cancer screening. For an entire day, local physician-volunteers take over Lee’s church office, using it as a temporary exam room.
Last year, exams of 52 men revealed three who tested positive. All three cancers were caught early, treated and the men are alive and well.
“That makes me feel good,” says Lee. “Sometimes, I talk to my dad and I say, ‘I failed you. I should have been more diligent about going home.’ But I can’t do anything about that now. I can do something about this.”
When Lee came to Loudon Avenue 27 years ago, straight from Duke Divinity School, his “grand scheme” was to pastor a model church, a place where others would come to see what church and ministry could be like.
“I never wanted to be a Sunday orator, a minister who just shows up on Sunday and preaches and then stays away the rest of the week and says, ‘We’re doing church.’ I wanted to pastor a church that was engaged in meaningful ministry seven days a week. I wanted to pastor a church that touched lives, a church that saved lives.
“Loudon Avenue became that church.”
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