Families of Faith Support Healthcare for the Working Poor in Memphis

It could be any city in America, but it’s Memphis, not long ago rated the poorest major city in the nation. A nonprofit organization, the Church Health Center, stands as an example of the kind of work that faith-based and faith-supported organizations can do.

It also represents the kind of nonprofit organization that reaches out to families of faith. A family foundation staked its founder to startup money, and family philanthropy is a cornerstone of its support. The Church Health Center encourages family giving by offering specially designed vehicles. The Gift of a Lifetime Family Fund is a $100,000 gift designed to make the whole family a permanent part of the Center, and the Legacy Society is for individuals and families who have named the Center as a recipient of a bequest in their wills. (Donors need not be faith-based to support the Center; all appropriate donors except government are welcome.)

The story of the Church Health Center reads like a textbook case study in how to start a successful nonprofit organization largely on guts and belief. Its founder and still its leader is Scott Morris, a medical doctor with a master’s from Yale Divinity School.

In Memphis, he found a spiritual home at St. John’s United Methodist Church. He convinced his parish to provide the site. He convinced Central Church — another local congregation — to do the renovations. And he convinced the Plough Foundation (a family foundation) to make a $100,000 grant and Methodist Hospital to match that grant.

Faith, Health, and Doing the Right Thing: A Conversation with Scott Morris

by Bob Abernethy

Ever since he was a teenager growing up in Atlanta, Scott Morris, a 47-year-old physician and minister, has felt called by God to take care of poor people who are sick. In 1985, Morris chose to serve in Memphis, Tennessee, because it has so many people who are poor, and he quickly sold the city’s religious and philanthropic community on his vision.

The Church Health Center opened its door in 1987 with a staff of six. Today, the Center gives quality primary care to more than 32,000 “working poor” who have no medical insurance. It receives support from Memphis’s philanthropic community, from 200 churches of all denominations and faith traditions, and, by no means least, from hundreds of doctors and nurses who volunteer their time to help take care of the Center’s patients.

Recently, I went to Memphis to do a story on Morris and the Church Health Center for the PBS television series Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, a production of Thirteen/WNET in New York. He spoke about hope and healing and what he has learned as a doctor from ministering to the sick poor. “Every little piece of what we do can be reproduced” in other cities, Morris told me. “What you need,” he said, “is one person who lives and breathes the idea.…In any community, if you have that one person who has the vision and is willing to go out and tell other people about it and draw the community together around it, it can happen.”

In this excerpt from my conversation with Morris, he brings religious faith squarely into play with how we think about contemporary philanthropy, charitable giving, and the poor:

Abernethy: How did the Church Health Center come about?

Morris: I was always interested in the church. I read the New Testament. I saw the stories about healing the sick. And yet I looked around and saw what my church did, which was very little. We prayed for people on Sunday morning. The pastor was expected to visit people in the hospital. A few people visited the shut-ins, and that defined our healing ministry. We had built large hospitals that had church names on them. They did good work, but they had almost nothing to do with worshiping congregations. It seemed to me that the church was called to do much more to provide health care and care for our body and spirit.

Abernethy: What kinds of people do you serve? What do you see?

Morris: For the past 12 years, the Center has focused on providing health care for the working poor — low-wage workers who don’t have health insurance. The people we take care of are those folks who work to make our lives comfortable. They shine our shoes, cook our food, and will one day dig our graves. They really are the lost, forgotten people in our community. When they get sick, their options are very few.

Abernethy: What do you say to someone you might like to have as a volunteer? What is the most effective argument?

Morris: That this is the right thing to do. But there aren’t very many times when I am trying to encourage somebody to come and volunteer. For the most part, our experience is that somebody comes to me and says, “I would like to do it. Do you have a place for me?” We only ask volunteers to come once every two or three months for a particular shift. That’s something they can sustain for 30 years. And so far, there’s really not been anybody who has stopped coming because we were asking too much.

Abernethy: The biggest single part of your support comes from individuals and foundations, with some private gifts. How did you persuade the rich people of this community to be so generous?

Morris: The people of Memphis are very committed to trying to make Memphis a better place, and they understand when the people who are working — doing a job that nobody else is willing to do — get sick, or when they or their children need quality medical care. It has not been difficult to get people who have some means to want to help their neighbor. Memphis is willing to do that; almost every city in America is willing to do that. We just created a structure that allows people to do it. We spend a lot of time and effort telling them about it.

Abernethy: What has happened to you as a result of seeing the kinds of poor people that you’re dealing with?

Morris: When you’re poor, life has often taken away all those material gifts that are distracting to us. Many people we see, who are without material wealth, substitute incredible spiritual drive and a spiritual wealth that is overwhelming to me. Every day, I see people who struggle through life, and I wonder how I could have done that myself. They show me. They teach me. They help me to understand how to deal better with my own problems. And they’re doing it on a shoestring. It is a powerful experience for me every day that I come to work. And I would never give that up.

Abernethy: Have you had an experience of seeing God in the poor?

Morris: I can see God in the eyes of both the wealthy and the poor who are able to be honest with themselves about what God has given them. Just being poor does not put you in contact with God. Being rich can often drive you away from contact with God. But both can come together and see and tell a story that I can share with them, that moves me and drives me closer to God.

Abernethy: What is the relationship between your faith and your work?

Morris: It’s easier for me to be involved in nurturing my own spirit while I am out doing something — taking care of a person who is hurting, who is sick, who is in great need. The 15 minutes that a cast is drying, for example, is an incredible time to get to know somebody. You learn about how they view their life and how this broken arm is going to affect them. That can lead to, “If you’re not going to be able to work, how are you goingto function without thatincome?” And then, “What sort of strength will you have? How will God look out for you?” Then the moment allows me to talk about my own sense of sharing God’s love and compassion in my life, with what I do with that person.

I go from putting a cast on somebody with a broken arm to having a bond with them that I otherwise would never have had. That happens to me over and over every day with patients. The person comes with a very physical complaint and yet, for both of us, by the time we finish the interview, we have connected in some spiritual way that sustains us, that helps us both grow. I’m only able to see that because I get rid of the idea that “I’m the doctor and you’re the patient.” Instead, I try to adapt to a viewpoint that “we’re in this life and world together.”

I think patients do sense that from me. And they sense it from the Center. We try to start with that concept from the moment somebody walks in our front door. It’s just like coming to visit your neighbor or your friend. It is not that you are coming here for a service. You are coming here as though you are walking into a sanctuary.

I was always taken by the healing stories in the Bible, by what it seemed to me that Jesus was saying: “I am not alone in the healing. If you want to be a disciple, then you, too, must follow this road of caring for the body and caring for the spirit, and be a healer in your own right.” I think I could never have done anything else. I get called from time to time and offered jobs here or there. But nobody needs to call me for another job. This is what I’m going to do until I draw my last breath.

In the past 14 years, the Church Health Center’s has grown from one man’s vision into a mature organization. Morris remains the Center’s executive director, maintains a full-time family practice within its walls, and serves as an associate pastor at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Memphis.

The Center’s mission is to reclaim the Church’s biblical and historical commitment to care for the poor who are sick — a mission energized by people of faith rising up and doing what Morris believes they are called to do.

Family Funding Support Is Important

It now takes $7 million to run the Center each year. More than 57 percent comes from individuals, 33 percent from foundations, 5 percent from congregations and congregational groups, and 3 percent from businesses. The rest comes from associations, agencies, and schools. More than 200 local congregations account for the contributions from the religious sector — congregations that are conservative and liberal, black and white, Baptist, Presbyterian, Jewish, or of another faith. Gifts come from a variety of families and individuals, wealthy and poor.

Grants are received from foundations such as the Thomas W. Briggs Foundation, the Cannon Family Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, and The Wilson Foundation. When the Center wanted to expand its services to include preventive activities, it obtained a $450,000 grant from Kresge to renovate the facility that is now the Hope and Healing Center.   Support for the Center fit right into the foundation’s mission.

Sebastian S. Kresge was a thrifty, caring individual with a strong religious background and a commitment to give back to his community. When he established the S.S. Kresge Company in 1899, he founded what would become K-Mart — now one of the biggest department store chains in the United States. Kresge celebrated the 25th anniversary of his company by establishing the foundation that bears his name. The Kresge Foundation now has assets of more than $2.5 billion and makes grants of better than $125 million each year. Although its founder died in 1966 — at age 99 — the foundation still involves Kresge family, and still ensures that every grant focuses on Sebastian Kresge’s mission “to promote the well-being of mankind.”

Another family of faith that has supported the Center is the Sharpe family. Until his death, Robert F. Sharpe, Sr., was one of the Center’s strongest supporters. A guru of planned giving, he raised money for institutions all over the country. When it came to the Center, however, the work was personal. Sharpe grew up poor in Tyronza, Arkansas. As a child, he developed pain in his abdomen and was found to be on the verge of death from acute appendicitis. The surgeon knew that Sharpe’s mother was poor, lacked health insurance, and could not pay for the surgery. Thirty years later, Sharpe had the hospital dig up his old bill, and he paid it.

His experience moved Sharpe to join in fundraising for the Church Health Center. In addition, Sharpe and his wife made donations and established two Founders’ Circle endowments to honor family members. Others families have done the same. In the past few months, for instance, three families have made gifts of more than $100,000, in one case to honor themselves, their children and their grandchildren; in another to honor their parents’ anniversary; and in the third, to remember family members.

Because Morris specified that his purpose in establishing the Center was to call the church to task — to ask the Memphis community to take seriously what the gospel teaches about how the poor should be cared for — the Center does not seek funding from the government. Morris believes that the government has a significant role in addressing the problem of healthcare for the poor and uninsured, but that the Center’s role is different. Either the congregations and citizens of Memphis support the Center, or its doors will close. Morris believes that the community must stand up and say:

These are the issues in our community. We want to do something about it, and that really doesn’t have to do with what the federal government thinks or doesn’t think.

What benefits do Morris and his associates reap? According to Morris:

I am driven in some way to be a helpful person, to use the skills that I have in the world to try to make it a better place. It’s easier for me to be involved in nurturing my own spirit while I am out doing something, and for me that “doing something” has to do with taking care of a person who is hurting, who is sick, who is in great need.

Morris views the Center as a sanctuary. That is what the faith and philanthropy of the individuals, families, foundations, businesses, physicians, nurses, and others who give their money, time, talents, and goods to the Church Health Center have built — a sanctuary for the bodies and spirits of their neighbors, and ultimately, themselves.