Oak Grove Baptist Church’s basement became a makeshift boardroom Friday.
Three dozen members of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare’s senior management team held a strategy session in the church, which sits in the heart of one of the city’s most distressed neighborhoods.
“We’re a faith-based ministry of the United Methodist Church,” said Methodist President and CEO Gary Shorb, “but we’ve never done this before.”
Dr. Eric Winston, senior pastor of nearby Mt. Zion Baptist Church, said he’d never seen such a gathering. “I can’t remember the last time we had this many good-looking white people in this neighborhood,” he told the crowd.
Winston was joking, but all of the three dozen health-care executives in the room got the point.
They weren’t there to lead a discussion about financially responsible strategies for providing health care to this increasingly boarded-up and ganged-up neighborhood south of Downtown, once home to international drug trafficker Craig Petties.
They were there to get to know some of the people who need those services.
They started by listening to neighborhood leaders such as Winston, Rev. Lynn Dandridge of Central Baptist Church and Rev. James Kendrick of Oak Grove.
Kendrick told executives about his recent encounter with a scar-faced man at a nearby burned-out apartment building. “He said, ‘You can’t help us from the outside. You gotta be here,’ ” Kendrick said. “This isn’t about systems. This is about relationships.”
Pastors such as Kendrick are vital links in Methodist’s Congregational Health Network, whose 450 members are working to build relationships between health care providers and people who live in underserved areas such as Riverview.
More of Methodist’s charity care ($6.3 million in 2010) comes from Riverview’s 38109 ZIP code than any other in the city.
The pastors who live and work in 38109 reminded that infant mortality, drug abuse and gang-related violent crime aren’t the only killers in this neighborhood.
Riverview’s residents also suffer disproportionately from diabetes, depression and other physical and emotional maladies.
“If you really want to help, show up,” Winston said.
“Treat people like people, not patients, not numbers, not statistics. Don’t play with us. This is too serious.”