More good news from the medical care, and overcoming differences, front: A tiny liberal Methodist church and huge, conservative Fellowship Bible are working together to bring free medical care to the working poor of the Oak Forest neighborhood. “We all serve the same God,” retired orthopedic surgeon Dr. Barry Sorrells said. “We don’t let doctrine get in the way.”
The new clinic opened by Fellowship Bible and tiny Oak Forest United Methodist Church three weeks ago could serve as a model, church members say, for the interdenominational non-profit clinic that lawyers Matt House and Amy Johnson announced recently they hope to create. Oak Forest United Methodist Church’s members — there are nearly 250 — are largely “old-time, union, working-class people” who used to live in the neighborhood and still drive in for services, pastor Russ Breshears said. What Breshears called spiritual maturity and shared concerns over the neighborhood’s decline and the working poor’s inability to afford health insurance led to the joint creation of Shepherd’s Hope clinic at 2404 S. Tyler St., directly behind the Oak Forest church. The clinic is run as a limited liability corporation; its board includes men from Fellowship and men and women from Oak Forest.
The clinic is open 6 p.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays; Aug. 17 will be its fourth day of operation. Arkansas Children’s Hospital intensivist pediatrician Dr. Tad Fiser — a Fellowship member who first had the idea to open the clinic — is medical director; he and other doctors rotate visits. Continuity of care is provided by co-administrators Lola Fish, an RN; Jan Butenschoen, a professor of nursing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock; and Veta Biggers, an advanced nurse practitioner; one of them will be present every Thursday. Pharmacist Andrea Halverson will work with the clinic, and a psychiatrist has signed on. Other specialists — including surgeons — have also agreed to help, Sorrells said. All personnel are volunteers. Sorrells, whose own job is as facilitator, expects to get so many volunteers that they’ll be called on only once every six to eight weeks.
Details of the clinic were provided Sunday at an open house, where dozens of people ate cookies, toured the clinic and signed up to become volunteers. The clinic is housed in a former parsonage that Oak Forest United Methodist once considered tearing down. “The church had no interest in being a slumlord,” Breshears said. He said $22,000 in in-kind repairs to the house and office furniture donated by retiring gyn-oncologist Dr. David Bard completed the transformation from residence to clinic.
Fellowship Bible’s outreach has targeted what it calls the “south midtown area,” south of I-630 to Asher and east of University to Woodrow Street, for the past several years, fixing up housing and mentoring students at Franklin Elementary. The Oak Forest congregation asked itself, “What can we do to serve the community instead of being afraid of it?” pastor Breshears said.
Though the clinic sports signs at its entrance that it does not keep drugs or narcotics on the premises, the building had been broken into the night before the open house, signaling some of the neighborhood problems the churches hope to address. The neighborhood’s alert center will patrol in front of the clinic on Thursdays.
Sorrells said he had a “passion” to help “people trying to do the right thing,” working to take care of their families, but unable to handle the cost of medical care.
The clinic is targeting neighbors (though it won’t turn others away) ages 19-64 who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, are too young for Medicare benefits, and can’t afford private insurance. A fee of $5 is charged. So far, word of mouth has brought in just a few patients — two people from Guatemala, a person with a slipped disc who was referred to a specialist, bus drivers from the Little Rock School District. One evening a young man who couldn’t speak English who needed treatment for an STD was directed to a clinic that could treat him for free. “That’s not a bad evening’s work,” Breshears said.
Acknowledging that free clinics can’t handle the volume of the uninsured — one study says 226,000 working Arkansans don’t have insurance — Sorrells said that, nevertheless, “I don’t know that waiting on the government [to address rising medical costs] is the thing to do.” He said all doctors have treated patients without charging them; the clinic gives them a structure in which to do that.
The clinic will be Christian, and doctors may ask patients if they may pray for them, Breshears said, but the religious aspect will not be “heavy-handed.” Doctors may ask to pray for their patients, “but there will be no pushing,” he said. Information on nutrition and other “life-skills” will also be available.