DIVINITY Online Edition
Preaching the Gospel of Health
Rev. William Lee builds a model of health ministry in Roanoke, Va.

by Bob Wells

On a gray Tuesday morning in March, in the sanctuary of Loudon Avenue Christian Church in Roanoke, Va., 10 people sit scattered among the pews, intently listening to the Rev. William Lee D’78. Visitors from a Baptist church in Richmond, they want to find out how Lee and his Disciples of Christ congregation did it—how they built a health care ministry that is transforming lives throughout some of the poorest neighborhoods in Roanoke.

Photo By: Bob Wells

 Rev.William Lee in his office at Loudon Avenue Christian

For the next 45 minutes, in a talk that’s part sermon, part political primer, Lee briefs them about the various health and wellness programs Loudon Avenue has created:

  • A parish nursing program that provides health education and screening to church and community members;

  • The Faith in Action project, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to help guide seniors through the confusing maze of modern medical and social services; and

  • Most ambitious of all, a separate, nonprofit community health clinic that provides primary care to the poor and uninsured in the most medically under-served areas of Roanoke.

If they want to start a similar program at their own church—particularly if they want to start a clinic—it’s going to require a lot of hard work, Lee warns the folks from Richmond.

“You’ve got to have somebody with energy and passion,” he says. “If you’re not willing to do the sweating and grunting and praying and crying, then don’t do it.”

Underscoring the point, Lee asks a question that leaves his listeners shifting in their seats, laughing nervously.

“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.”

“Who in this organization is willing to die for this cause?” he asks. “Who here is willing to die to make this happen?”

As the visitors steal glances at one another, you can almost see the thought balloons floating above their heads, all with the same question: “Is he for real?”

He is.

“We’re in the season of Lent,” Lee adds. “It says in the Bible, from this time forward the Son of Man must suffer and be betrayed. Remember, when Jesus says ‘Pick up your cross and follow me,’ the last place you follow Him is to a blood-stained cross.”

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.

Photo By: Bob Wells

 Lee briefs visitors about building a health ministry.

“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.

Photo By: Bob Wells

 Visitors hear the hard truth from Lee: Building a health ministry takes passion and commitment .

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.

“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.

Photo By: Bob Wells

 An open door: Lee welcomes visitors to Kuumba Community Health and Wellness Clinic.

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.”

Copyright © 2004 Duke Divinity School. All Rights Reserved
magazine@div.duke.edu :: (919) 660-3412