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More than a clinic: Churches team up for unique outreach

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following three stories are part of a monthly Baptist Press series to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.

DARDANELLE, Ark. (BP)–“If you just give Christian people a structure to express their Christianity, they will jump on it,” pastor Stephen Davis said of the flood of believers from a variety of denominations who have volunteered to meet needs and share the love of Christ with people in need at the River Valley Christian Clinic, a free medical, dental and vision clinic that opened on Jan. 11 this year.

So far, the clinic has been able to provide more than $246,000 worth of healthcare services and medication free of charge to people who meet federal poverty guidelines, who are without insurance and who cannot yet qualify for Medicare/Medicaid. More than 70 churches across various denominations in Pope County, Ark., and about 650 volunteers, some medical and some non-medical, have united for the purpose of demonstrating and sharing the Gospel.

Over a year ago, two separate groups began to explore the possibility of meeting the healthcare needs of the county’s poor. Davis, pastor of First Baptist in Russellville, said the church had had a vision for a couple of years to do something like this locally. FBC members James Carter, a semi-retired family practice physician, and Mike Miller, an architect and entrepreneur, went with Davis to visit a charitable clinic in Mountain Home, Ark.

“That clinic had what we wanted — not only meeting physical needs, but also spiritual needs,” said Carter, the head of the clinic’s board of directors. “We were impressed with the employees and volunteers and the fun they were having.” While there, they were told that another group from Pope County recently had visited the Mountain Home clinic as well.

The two groups joined forces and began to formulate ideas.

“Our heart was to work through the local churches,” Carter recounted. “We got five large church pastors together and asked, ‘Hey, would you be willing to be a part of this?'” The first board of directors came from that group. “We do not desire to be identified with any denomination,” Carter said of the clinic, “but we are unapologetically followers of Christ.”

God began to put it all together as they solicited churches for volunteers and financial support.

Carter, who worked at the Millard-Henry Clinic in Russellville, became aware of a clinic in Dardanelle that had closed. He approached Mike McCoy, an FBC member and CEO of St. Mary’s Hospital, with the idea of using the building, which the hospital owns, as a free clinic.

St. Mary’s responded by giving the 9,000-square-foot fully equipped building to the clinic on a rent-free lease. St. Mary’s also allowed clinic organizers to make modifications to secure an area as a full-service pharmacy and to do some plumbing for dental chairs to be installed.

“The exam rooms were already outfitted,” Carter marveled. “We just walked in.”

By the time they had organized nine months later, more than 50 churches were on board with the project. Currently more than 70 churches are involved, and volunteers readily respond to the opportunity to help with the twice-per-month clinics that require 50-60 people to operate effectively.

The medical staff for each clinic night includes five physicians, plus one nurse assigned to each doctor, two dentists, one optometrist, three pharmacists and three pharmacy techs. Non-medical volunteers include parking lot attendants, greeters, interpreters, pastors and office workers. All are believers and passionate about meeting the people and ministering to their needs.

Each clinic begins with a meal served to the volunteers prior to a short program with a devotional and time for prayer to get everyone on board with the mission, which Carter simply describes as: “to share the love of Christ.” Pastors from a variety of churches take turns giving the devotional for each clinic.

Then a pastor proceeds to the waiting area to share with the patients about the mission of the clinic and to ask if they have any spiritual needs. He invites them to make use of the chapel where they can go to pray or have someone pray with them.

Between January and May 622 patients had been seen at the clinic, with 205 of them now qualified as regular patients. On average, 75 patients receive treatment each clinic night. Pastors, doctors and others regularly share Christ with patients, and they know of at least one patient who has made a decision for Christ since the clinic opened.

Filling prescriptions is at the heart of the clinic’s ministry, Carter noted. “Providing medical exams doesn’t mean much,” he said, “without also being able to provide medication.”

Chuck Wilson of First Freewill Baptist Church in Russellville is the volunteer pharmacist in charge of the clinic’s pharmacy who recruits pharmacists and pharmacy techs to work on clinic nights. “We have thoroughly enjoyed it. We’re getting to fill prescriptions without having to worry about the money part,” Wilson said.

Through various drug companies’ pharmacy assistance programs, the clinic seeks to obtain as much free medication as possible. Volunteers complete volumes of paperwork to qualify patients for the assistance programs.

Wilson has seen many patients in the clinic receive three months of medication, whereas they were buying only the small amounts they could afford in retail clinics. “Here we don’t have to worry about billing insurance,” Wilson said. “We can just take care of people.”

Another thing that excites Wilson is getting to work alongside believers from different denominations. “We have as many as 70 churches involved, getting to know them, getting to be with them, to learn about their spiritual needs and pray with them. You see pastors outside of their own churches mingling with the patients and getting excited about people getting saved. You enter and actually almost feel the tangible presence of God — that we can come from all churches and do this together.”

Wilson’s wife La Jean, who also volunteers at this clinic, remarked, “This is what we get to do when we go on mission trips to other countries. And now we’re getting to do it at home.”

She helps in the office and sometimes guides patients through the clinic. With so many stations a patient must visit while in the clinic, they need an escort to take them around, “so they don’t get lost or miss something,” she said.

The patients’ greatest physical need is dental care, noted Marcia Chronister, the clinic’s administrator and only paid employee. Dental appointments are booked through August. “The last thing they will spend their money on is their teeth,” Chronister said. “They just learn to live with the pain.”

Dan Ryder, a member of Central Presbyterian Church who has been in dentistry 31 years, had been on several mission trips to Mexico, but the thought of giving back locally had been nagging him for a couple of years. One day his wife mentioned that she had heard a doctor speak about a free clinic that was opening.

Ryder spoke with retired physician Stanley Teeter, a member of the clinic’s board of directors, who referred him to Carter. “The more I talked to Dr. Carter, the more I felt that this was an answer to my desire to be able to do some kind of outreach without having to go several thousand miles away. I felt like this was the time I needed to shut up and listen to the Holy Spirit. Now I’m in it with both hands and both feet!”

Ryder became the dental director in charge of setting up the dental exam room and coordinating more than two dozen dentists who have volunteered to serve in the clinic. They have seen about 160 patients since the clinic opened.

“The biggest need we treat is relief of pain. We’ve done very little except extractions. Dr. Carter and I share the hope that that can be extended to preventive care and doing fillings to help keep teeth, and begin to involve the hygienists,” Ryder said.

Working at the clinic, Ryder said, “is very faith-strengthening. If you’ve ever been involved in outreach work, you know that oftentimes you go to minister and you end up being the one ministered to.”

Optometrist Jim Lieblong, a member of First United Methodist in Russellville, initially heard about the clinic from Teeter in their Sunday School class. He told Teeter that he would do anything he could to help, and it wasn’t long before Carter asked him to coordinate the vision care project, which has been up and running the past four clinics.

The clinic has provided eye exams and free glasses for more than 20 patients to date.

“There is a real need not only spiritually but physically,” Lieblong said. “When you meet a physical need, you have an opportunity to meet spiritual needs. I didn’t know how much of a need there was, but it didn’t take many times before we knew.” Working in venues like the River Valley Christian Clinic helps the Christian volunteers, including himself, become more comfortable sharing their faith in all areas of their lives, Lieblong said.

Pastor Davis remarked, “I’ve just been humbled and overwhelmed by the response of the people who have led this, who have been so unselfish, compassionate and loving and want nothing more in return than to just serve the Lord and see people saved.”

The clinic is one of the few places where different denominations have come together with the same purpose in mind, Davis added. He echoed the sentiments of many of the volunteers: “That’s one of the neat things, one of the benefits — discovering that we can all work together.”

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  • Kay Adkins