Health & Healing: A church-based clinic brings physical, mental and environmental care

For years, Bishop William Young and Pastor Dianne Young of The Healing Center have been
nurturing an idea to have their house of worship serve the spiritual needs of their community as well as temporal ones, like housing and health care. 

Founders of the Suicide in the Black Church Conference, which has garnered national attention, the husband and wife team have a strong background in community health with a focus on mental health issues. So the new health and wellness clinic, housed on the campus of The Healing Center Baptist Church, in the Oakhaven community in South Memphis, was a natural fit for them.

“An unique thing is for the clinic to be housed at a place of faith, a trusted institution in our communities. Our church, The Healing Center, has been cutting edge in addressing emotional fitness, suicide, and mental and behavioral health,” said Pastor Dianne Young.

The couple shared their vision with Dr. David M. Stern, vice chancellor for health for statewide initiatives at University of Tennessee Health Science Center, and he began the work of creating a unique partnership of volunteers to launch the clinic. Partners include the church and volunteer support from UTHSC, the University of Memphis, Rhodes College, local government, Memphis Area Legal Services, and the West Cancer Center.

Dr. Stern is the executive director of the clinic. Peter Hossler, PhD , an assistant professor of Urban and Community Health at Rhodes College, will serve as the program director. The clinic is targeted to reach the uninsured and its services are completely free to patients.

“In places like Memphis, there is not a lot of trust between the underserved African-American community and any part of the establishment, including the medical folks. If you want to reach everyone, you have to think of an inclusive strategy, and the church is a logical place to reach out to engage the community."

On March 12, healthcare, academic, faith, and government leaders, along with members of the congregation and the community, gathered at the church at 3885 Tchulahoma Road for a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a tour of the first-of-its-kind clinic.

The church was founded in 1991 by Bishop Young, and his wife, Pastor Young, and has been an anchor for the community, which Dr. Stern believes is key to the success of the clinic.

“In places like Memphis, there is not a lot of trust between the underserved African-American community and any part of the establishment, including the medical folks. If you want to reach everyone, you have to think of an inclusive strategy, and the church is a logical place to reach out to engage the community. The church, generally, has established trust in the community,” said Dr. Stern.

The Youngs view the church as a hub of activity for the community that is in part faith-based and also leverages spiritual guidance to provide other kinds of help to the community. Dr. Stern says this is exactly what he was looking for.

“We are bringing the doctor to the community rather than the community to the doctor. The key to the clinic is the trust the Youngs have built over time,” said Dr. Stern.

The clinic plans to offer free primary health care, medication management, substance abuse and mental health counseling. In addition, resources will be available to help patients with housing, employment, stress management, and legal issues, factors which impact overall health and wellness.

“Medical care is different if someone doesn’t have housing, doesn’t have transportation, has a mental health problem, has a substance use disorder. It makes the situation more complicated,” said Dr. Stern. “We felt in this kind of environment it was important to have a different approach which is body, mind and spirit.”

They will screen for substance abuse. The body can’t be treated effectively for diseases like diabetes and heart failure if there is an underlying addiction issue, Stern said. Mental health will be addressed. If the mental health problems exist, it’s difficult to get the medical issues under control.

“So, addiction and mental health has to be in dealt with in concert with physical health or it won’t work,” said Dr. Stern.

The last part of the equation, which Dr. Stern classifies under the spirit, are the social determinants of health.

“It’s everything the doctor has not traditionally looked at but if you don’t look at these things you can’t help a certain group of patients,” said Dr. Stern.

These have to do with housing, transportation, employment, educational opportunities, legal services, food insecurity — all the things that are not considered physical health issues but influence phsyical health.

In the clinic, Memphis Area Legal Services will provide pro-bono work, ranging from help with evictions to expungement of felonies and aid with immigration issues; there will also be assistance available with employment, housing, transportation and benefits.

A team will be assigned to a patient based on their particular needs that might include a social worker, mental health worker, legal aid — anything else the patient might need right along with the doctor.

The clinic will offer free primary care, medication management, substance abuse and mental health counseling, as well as resources to assist with housing, employment, stress management, and legal issues. (Kim Coleman)

“It’s our notion of integrated care — a wraparound approach. Our goal is to see if we can break a generational cycle of poverty and chronic disease. Things that make it difficult for a person to reach their potential,” said Dr. Stern.

The clinic is housed in a separate building on the church campus. It will include three exam rooms and rooms for classes and group meetings. Initially, it will be open one Monday a month from 5 to 8 p.m., with plans to expand to once a week in six months to a year.

Approximately $125,000 from a Community Enhancement Grant Program is being used to upgrade the facility for its new purpose.

UTHSC is providing furniture, exam equipment, and resources for the building, along with medical, physician assistant, nursing, and pharmacy students and faculty volunteers.

The clinic will work with volunteers from the social work program at the University of Memphis; Memphis Area Legal Services volunteers; and nutrition and fitness support volunteers from Rhodes College.

West Cancer Center will be on site periodically to screen individuals for grant-covered medical services.

According to Dr. Stern, the clinic will operate like all academic medical centers, with trainees in the different professions supervised by faculty members or professionals.

In addition to improved health outcomes, another goal with this wrap-around approach is to see decreased hospitalizations, decreased emergency room visits and EMT calls, which are all expensive health-related costs.

Dr. Stern and his team will track various data points through an electronic health record. They'll follow how many patients are signed up; how many patients are returning; how many have been helped with employment, legal services, mental and substance use problems.

“We are going to track the outcomes so we can see if we are having a significant effect. If it works, I think it could be a demonstration model that could be adopted elsewhere in the state and nation,” said Dr. Stern.

Supporters, including the Youngs, believe the clinic can be a model for services that improve not only the health but the lives of underserved communities in Memphis by embedding them in a trusted place outside of the usual healthcare setting.

“It is important to give hope to people who have lost hope that things can be different for them and their families. It is also important that this Wellness and Stress Clinic is the first of it’s kind in Tennessee and possibly the country.

We have an opportunity as a city to make a difference in the lives of residents of this Mid-South area. We can not only give help, but hope that good health and living is possible,” said Pastor Young.

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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.