Rev. Dr. Scott Morris, founder of the Church Health Center in Memphis, speaks to the Kansas East Conference.
Rev. Dr. G. Scott Morris’ conversation with a witch doctor in Zimbabwe drove home for him the reason why there will always be a role in health care for the church.
Morris was one of two keynote speakers at the 2012 Kansas East Annual Conference session June 6-9 at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection. The conference met under the theme, “The Church United: Working for Wellness.”
“Virtually every patient that I saw had already been to the ‘nyanga,’ or the witch doctor,” Morris said. Since the patients could receive free care from Morris and other western doctors, he was curious why the people went first to the nyanga, whom they had to pay.
“He was able to answer the one question the western doctors could never answer, and the one that people cared the most about,” Morris said. “’Why did I get sick?’ The western doctor’s answer was always unfulfilling.”
The witch doctor’s answer almost always was the same to every person; they had failed to somehow appropriately honor their ancestors. The nyanga said if he were sick, he would go to the western doctor because the doctor’s medicine was better, except in the spiritual arena.
Morris himself grew up wanting to work professionally in the church but was terrified of the thought of preaching 52 sermons a year. He read the Bible and knew that healing was an important ministry, not just of Jesus, but the disciples as well. In his own church, aside from a few hospital visits and prayers, there wasn’t much to its healing ministry.
During college and seminary, he kept looking and reading about what the church historically has done and discovered the church had always been involved in health care. Wesley practiced medicine from age 19 until his death.
“Things have changed over the past 150 years,” Morris said.
Three factors contributed to that—the split between science and religion caused by Darwin, the rise of the medical profession and the reassertion of a philosophical idea that you could separate the body and the spirit in a person.
“We all know there’s something wrong with it,” Morris said. “What affects my body affects my spirit and vice versa. We must find ways to minister to people’s bodies and spirits. It’s been a driving force in my life.”
At age 32, Morris moved to Memphis with $52 in his pocket. He’d read Memphis was the poorest major city in America, so the need for inexpensive health care would be significant. He was blessed when St. John United Methodist Church took him on as a project. He’s been associate pastor there for nearly 27 years. He secured funding from a Jewish family’s foundation and started the Church Health Center clinic, seeing 12 patients the first day. Today, the clinic serves more than 70,000 people.
“Being human means caring for our bodies as we live and as we die,” Morris said. “This is why I believe that the church has a vital role to play in the future of our health-care system in America as it changes.”
Morris said he believes there are five fundamental areas where the church can lead the discussion.
First, in this country, we have an unholy love affair with technology.
“We’ve come to believe that I can live my life any way I want to, and it doesn’t matter. When I’m broken, the doctor can use some form of technology to fix me and put me back together,” Morris said. “The doctor is not that smart, and the technology is not that good. God gave us this body for a reason, and we have an obligation to take care of it. We need to help people understand what that looks like.”
Second, we have to address end of life issues. Morris said that putting our loved ones through intensive care, under bright lights and surrounded by people who do not love them is torture and immoral.
“We need a national debate around issues of end of life,” Morris said. “Surely we in the church should be the first to say that death is not the enemy. Death takes away your dignity, but dying well is just another part of living well. The church needs to be teaching this lesson.”
The third issue is prevention.
“Everybody loves the idea of preventative medicine,” Morris said. “It mostly consists of the doctor telling you to stop drinking, stop smoking and start exercising. It goes in one ear and out the other.”
But churches aren’t practicing healthy living. The most unhealthy meal you can eat in a week you’ll eat at your church.
“If we’re not helping people to achieve what we would consider the goals of living, having more joy in your life, having more love in your life and getting closer to God, then what’s the point?” Morris asked.
Fourth, Morris said churches need to help society reconnect body and spirit, infusing the spiritual dimension in health care.
Morris told a story about praying with a woman in his care who had a life-threatening illness. She pulled through the illness and came back in to thank him for praying with her.
Fifth, Morris said it is important to keep pressure on those who are in power to continue to remember the poor.
“Jesus said the poor will always be with you,” Morris said. “So far, he has been right. There is a role for the church in all of this. I’m certain that following Jesus can only be done by engaging our whole selves. We need community to be faithful and we need community to be healthy.”
Morris ended by encouraging conference members interested in digging deeper into offering health ministries through their congregations to check out the Church Health Reader magazine in print or online at www.chreader.org.