Community healing: Alums merge faith and public health in face of COVID-19
In 1987, G. Scott Morris ’79 M.Div. founded Church Health, a non-profit organization that provides healthcare services to uninsured and underserved people in Memphis, Tennessee, and its suburbs. He’s built it into the nation’s largest privately funded, faith-based health service, providing comprehensive medical care to tens of thousands of people, with a full-time staff of 20 physicians and more than 1,000 doctors who volunteer.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Morris knew that the support of the city’s vibrant faith community — including Church Health — was essential to checking the virus’ spread. Local faith leaders have the trust of their congregations, he said, making them indispensable in building support for public-health measures, such as physical distancing.
“Without a doubt, the second question you’re asked in Memphis after ‘Where do you live?’ is ‘Where do you go to church?’” said Morris, an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. “There is no more powerful and trusted adviser in a community like Memphis than a pastor. And that’s true across faiths.”
As the pandemic began, one of Morris’ first calls was to a friend, the Rev. Jason Turner ’06 M.Div., another Yale Divinity School (YDS) alum and senior pastor of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a 4,000-member congregation in the city’s Midtown section. The two have closely collaborated over the past eight years at Church Health, where Turner serves on the executive board, and on broader social justice issues in Memphis — a majority Black city of more than 650,000 residents with a poverty rate of nearly 22%. That’s more than double the national rate of 10.5%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Two years ago, the pair established a fellowship program which provided a recent YDS graduate the opportunity to serve on the staffs of the church and healthcare service. Joshua Narcisse ’19 M.Div., the program’s inaugural faith and health resident, is now working beside his two mentors on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis in Memphis. Narcisse was there when Morris and Turner convened local faith leaders in mid-March.
“One of the first things I learned after coming to Memphis is that Church Health has the gift of gathering people,” said Narcisse. “It’s a safe space where folks from different walks of life can come together. And when Dr. Morris makes a call, people answer it.”
The faith community’s response to the COVID crisis bridged faiths, uniting Christian churches with synagogues and mosques in a common cause. “We have Southern Baptist preachers working with rabbis working with imams,” Narcisse said.
During early meetings, these leaders discussed the need to pause in-person religious services and the moral responsibility to follow public health guidelines, Turner said.
Guided by Church Health, the faith communities have helped coordinate drive-thru COVID-19 testing in neighborhoods where these services were lacking. They have provided groceries and other support to families in quarantine or those struggling to make ends meet due to the pandemic. (The city’s unemployment rate more than tripled to 14.3% last March following pandemic-related restrictions.)
Recently, they launched a campaign to build public confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines.
“The work is grounded in a theme that runs through all of the Abrahamic faith traditions: the love of neighbor,” Turner said.
Tending to their flocks
The faith leaders have undertaken this collaboration while seeing to the spiritual and material needs of their own individual flocks, Turner said.
At Mississippi Boulevard, the congregation’s clergy and lay leaders personally check on members who are sick, lonely, or otherwise require care. The church supports local restaurants by buying meals for frontline healthcare workers. Its program to address food insecurity, Manna Outreach, provides 25,000 to 30,000 meals monthly to low-income people.
To help compensate for the lack of in-person services, the church has embraced technology to deliver to its congregants vibrant, virtual worship services. Small-group meetings, such as Bible study classes, are also held remotely.
“Going that extra mile has been pivotal in people maintaining a sense of hope amidst the crisis and understanding that although we are physically distanced, we remain connected to each other,” Narcisse said.
His work with Church Health puts him at the forefront of the medical response to the pandemic as the organization provides COVID-19 testing, medical care for those sick with the virus, and access to vaccines. Among his duties, he coordinates a program on spirituality and medicine for the organization’s younger doctors.
Narcisse credits his Yale experience in helping him cope with the challenge. “I had genuine community at YDS and those folks continue to be my partners walking along this ministry journey,” he said. “That experience helped me to form community once I got to Memphis. I could connect with folks and build a support system that has kept me going through the pandemic and all of the craziness it has thrown my way.”
‘A call to discipleship’
For Morris, the pandemic is the latest chapter in a career spent offering healthcare services to Memphis’ underserved residents, including many who may not otherwise have access to healthcare despite working long hours at demanding jobs.
“We take care of the people who work to make everyone else’s lives comfortable,” he said. “They cook our food, look after our children, wash our dishes, cut our grass, and they don’t complain. Yet, when they get sick, their options are very limited.”
Morris, a 2020 recipient of the Yale-Jefferson Award for Public Service, arrived at YDS in the late-1970s looking for a way to connect faith and health, medicine, and ministry. One day, while visiting the chaplain’s office at Yale Medical School, he read a pamphlet on starting a church-based health clinic and decided that would be his path.
“In the call to discipleship, if you follow Jesus, you’re expected to do three things: to preach, to teach, and to heal,” he said. “You don’t get to take a pass on the healing part.”
The effort to mobilize the Memphis faith community is grounded in the idea, a shared one among religions, that each has obligation that God has bestowed on them to care for people’s bodies as well as their spirits, he said.
“What we’re doing is finding ways to link arms,” he said. “To set aside our theological differences and find a message of unity.”
The interfaith bonds held strong in May after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in Minnesota and Louisville, respectively, touched off nationwide protests and calls for racial justice, Turner said.
“We remained connected,” he said, noting that Memphis did not experience violent unrest last summer. “That’s not to say we saw eye to eye on every nuance of every issue, but we held together amidst the tensions. I believe that collectively the faith community played a role in holding the city together.”
Turner, vice president of the YDS Alumni Board, is proud that three generations of YDS alums are working together on the frontlines of the pandemic and on issues of justice and equity.
“YDS and its community allowed me to begin to live out my convictions, which were molded and shaped in those three years on campus,” he said. “We’re doing this work with our sleeves rolled up together. Yale should be proud of how we found each other.”