Church opens clinic in New Orleans


By Betty Backstrom
United Methodist News Service

NEW ORLEANS — The Rev. Connie Thomas stood with tears in her eyes as nurses and doctors treated patients during the opening of Luke’s House, a free clinic housed in Mt. Zion United Methodist Church’s Family Life Center.

“This is cutting edge ministry,” said Thomas, pastor of Mt. Zion Church. “Here is a chance for United Methodists to do hands-on work, helping those in need as they recover from Hurricane Katrina.”

Mt. Zion was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Situated near a thoroughfare in an underserved area of New Orleans, the clinic makes its services available to anyone in need.

“Many of the residents are uninsured and need free health care,” said the Rev. Carol Winn Crawford, pastor of Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church, a partner church in the project. “A lot of children live in the area surrounding Mt. Zion.”

An African-American couple with a young child visited with church volunteers while waiting to see the doctor at the clinic’s opening. During the conversation, volunteers learned the family was homeless and in need of food.

“We were able to provide food items from the Mt. Zion pantry and give them housing vouchers that had been purchased by Rayne from the Salvation Army,” said a smiling Thomas.

The free clinic will serve former residents who have returned to the central city area and growing numbers of Hispanic workers participating in the reconstruction of homes and businesses.

“We hope not only to provide medical help, but to wrap them into the conference’s Hispanic ministry,” said Rev. Oscar Ramos-Gallardo, a United Methodist Board of Global Ministries missionary helping to expand established Hispanic ministries in New Orleans and throughout the Louisiana Conference. 

Small miracles
Dr. Susan Berry, medical director for the clinic and a member of Rayne, was amazed at how everything fell into place so the clinic could open quickly.

“A lot of hard work certainly paid off, but it was remarkable that things just seemed to work out miraculously,” said Dr. Berry, also an associate professor for the Louisiana State University Medical School.

One of those little miracles involved Dr. Betty Lo, a professor in the Medical/Pediatrics Department at the LSU Health Sciences Center. After expressing an interest in a partnership with Luke’s House, Berry and Lo established an agreement with the pediatric resident physicians at the school. “The residents volunteered every night for the opening and have agreed to staff the clinic regularly on Tuesday nights,” said Jiselle Bock, executive director for the free clinic.

Other key elements needed for the clinic seemed to fall into place in the weeks before the opening. Luke’s House will be working with the St. Vincent de Paul Pharmacy to obtain medications for patients.

“We received close to 1,000 pounds of donated supplies from a physician in upstate New York,” Berry said. “Dr. Joseph Lalka happened to be retiring the week before our opening and offered us supplies from his office. That gift saved us thousands of dollars.”

Volunteers from as far away as Washington, Pennsylvania and Nebraska had a hand in the opening of the clinic. The idea of opening a free clinic came from members of volunteer work teams from St. Marks United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Neb.

“Dr. Jim Jantzen and his wife, Amy, who is a registered nurse, not only helped to staff the clinic, but helped set up the clinic before we opened on Tuesday. Several volunteers from Nebraska also regularly serve at Clinic with a Heart, our clinic model,” Bock said.

Since December 2005, a total of 10 teams from Lincoln have been housed at Rayne Memorial while gutting homes through the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Ministry, which is supported by the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

“We became very close to the teams from Lincoln. They even held fundraising campaigns back in Nebraska for the rebuilding of New Orleans,” said Melissa Erekson, board member for Luke’s House and a member of Rayne.

Private donations and a grant for $84,000 from the Methodist Health System Foundation in Louisiana provided a base of funds to launch the clinic.  

Healing ministry
“Luke’s House is a unique development because we provide care in a comprehensive way by offering medical services, mental health counseling and pastoral counseling. Offering all this and caring for each individual in the spirit of God’s love truly makes this a healing ministry,” said Bock, who most recently served in a free clinic in Armenia.

“One thing I am sure of,” Bock said, “is that we have the capacity and the resources in this country to make clinics like this one a reality. Countries like Armenia have very little. But we have so much in the United States at our fingertips.”

The Rev. Larry Norman, director of Louisiana Volunteers in Mission, will assist with recruiting volunteer medical teams locally and nationally.

“The teams will be critical in the success of the project, which will be volunteer-driven. We’ve already been in conversation with a team from Alabama, and we believe this volunteer opportunity will be very successful,” Norman said.

The clinic serves as a medical facility during the week and a sanctuary on Sunday.

“Our church, badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina, is still in need of repair,” Thomas said. “So this examination area is like a M.A.S.H. unit, which we take down before services and put back up again to serve patients during the week. Once we can get appropriate funding to repair the sanctuary, this area will be devoted fully to Luke’s House.”