Group focuses on urban health issues, church vitality


By Cathy Farmer
United Methodist News Service

MEMPHIS — It doesn't take prolonged study to see that much is wrong with Memphis. One of the poorest major urban areas in America, Memphis staggers under high rates of AIDS, cancer, stroke, diabetes, infant mortality, violence, poverty and difficult access to health care.

"The only thing we've found to be in abundance in Memphis is religion, and religion turns out to be really useful," said Dr. Gary Gunderson, a senior vice president at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.

Describing a study undertaken by Methodist Healthcare, he noted that there are 2,000 congregations in the city, 100-plus of which are United Methodist, and that many of them are assets because they're in areas with severe health challenges.

Gunderson spoke to a group of United Methodists gathered at Methodist University Hospital to study urban conditions and talk about a plan to reconnect the many communities within the city to Methodism.

Participants discussed having the strategy team mold a long-range plan that would be an urban model, using both faith and wellness/health components that combine the resources of the church with Methodist Healthcare and the Church Health Center.

Attending the Urban Strategy Consultation were representatives of six of the denomination's general agencies, Methodist Healthcare and the Church Health Center, Vanderbilt University Divinity School, United Methodist-related Emory University and the Foundation for Evangelism, as well as local United Methodist clergy and laity.

The discussions encompassed not only the urgency of addressing the health of the community, but also the need to focus on congregational health and development.

"We are losing the city as far as Methodist Christians are concerned," John Holt, Asbury District superintendent, told the crowd. "Over the last 40 years, we've closed 20 churches and started only two.

"As we looked at these harsh realities, we've determined that the only way to reconnect the city with Methodism is to start new churches, grow new congregations, revitalize existing congregations and move toward growth and life rather than death," Holt said. "Dr. Gunderson said the commitment of Methodist Healthcare is to life, not death. That's our commitment, too. To live and not to die."

Holt said more than 400,000 of the 1 million people in Memphis and Shelby County are unchurched. "We have a harvest before us if we're willing."

Whatever it takes
"We will do what is necessary, what it takes, for our churches to become vital and reconnected to the communities of Memphis so that we will be centers of wellness," said the Rev. Sharon Lewis-Karamoko, the new director of Urban and Holistic Ministries for the Memphis Conference. "God is not through with The United Methodist Church."

The opening kickoff dinner was at St. John's United Methodist Church on Sunday, Aug. 19. The strategy team met Aug. 20-21 at University Hospital. Part of the meeting was spent touring Memphis neighborhoods and United Methodist churches.

On Aug. 21, five areas of Memphis were chosen to be the first studied. Captains will be chosen for the five neighborhood teams, each with 15 laypeople from nearby churches. They will research the communities by walking the neighborhood, identifying what's happening, and then bring the information back to the strategy team - now dubbed the Pathfinders.

"It will probably take one to five years to collect the information, assess the data, institute some changes and see some vitality in new and significant ways, whether that involves the revitalization of an existing church or starting a new one," said Cory Simonton, one of the consultants. "Our overarching goal is the transformation of the church and the community."

Areas of focus
Global health and congregational development are among four areas of focus that the denomination's leaders have identified for the church's work. The other two areas are leadership development and ministry with people in poverty.

The boards and agencies at the strategy meeting made commitments to the Memphis initiative by offering immediate training, grant writing, spiritual renewal and seed grants.

United Methodist agencies that had representatives at the meeting included the Board of Discipleship, the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the Board of Global Ministries, United Methodist Men, the Board of Pension and Health Benefits and the United Methodist Publishing House.