BELTON—A high school principal helped ministers at First Baptist Church in Belton see a pressing community need—lack of access to quality medical care for the uninsured or underserved. Several years later, the Body of Christ Community Clinic draws support from 14 churches—three of them Baptist—and serves an average of 25 patients per week.
Community volunteers staff the clinic. They are united in a mission to provide Christ’s compassionate healing ministry to uninsured and underserved residents of the Belton/Salado area. The clinic has provided free primary medical and dental care to more than 5,000 patients since 2010.
Volunteer physicians, physician assistants, nurses, nurse practitioners and other medical professionals see patients in four medical rooms at the clinic two nights a week.
Doctors and nurses treat acute conditions, as well as chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure. When specialty care—such as cardiology, dermatology or gastrointestinal treatment—is required, the clinic refers the patient to a Baylor Scott & White health-care center.
Dental professionals offer basic dental hygiene care, screenings and fillings to patients at the facility and make referrals when patients need oral surgery.
All of nearly 100 volunteers are licensed. The clinic is supported privately, and it does not receive any state or national government funding.
Belton-area churches have taken ownership in supporting the clinic, said Craig Pearson, vice chair of the board of community representatives.
“We have been supported, to this point at least, by churches and individual donations,” said Pearson, executive pastor for administration at First Baptist Church in Belton. “Those donations are both financial and in-kind. The clinic was built largely with donated materials. The standard is that of a first-class clinic.”
The idea of a free clinic for the greater Belton/Salado area first surfaced in 2008, when a Belton High School principal sought counsel from the pastoral staff at First Baptist in Belton. The principal feared the community lacked access to free medical care because students were calling in sick and missing school at an alarming rate due to illness.
The discussion with the principal prompted First Baptist Church to form a team to investigate starting a free community clinic. Once First Baptist decided to proceed, other churches in the community wanted to be involved.
The churches worked closely with ECHO—Empowering Community Healthcare Outreach—a nonprofit organization that helps faith-based organizations launch free community clinics.
The clinic began with 11 member churches and has expanded to 14 congregations. Each member church signed a commitment letter and contributes a small percentage of its annual budget to operation of the clinic. Each church elects a member to the board of community representatives.
Although Baptists played a significant role in forming the clinic, it is successful today because churches of various denominations work together with a common purpose, said Bill Holmes of First Baptist Church.
“This is not (just) a Baptist thing,” he stated. “It was started by a lot of Baptist people, but now it is more of a partnership. We contend that is what is making this work—everybody having a voice in the formation of it. “
Donna Dunn, the clinic’s executive director, noted the clinic fosters an environment conducive to patients’ spiritual growth. Often, member churches provide meals to patients, and members pray with them in the waiting room. The clinic distributes Bibles and has multiple Bibles available for patients to read in the waiting room. It recently began offering counseling services to patients, something Dunn attributes in part to the spiritual compassion volunteers show to their patients.
“Most of our providers and nurses pray with the patients, as well,” she said. “They are in the private room and get more in-depth with what is going on in their lives. That’s one of the reasons we have kind of wanted to move forward in providing some counseling services here, because there is a lot of depression here.”
Patients benefit spiritually from faith-based free community clinics, but churches in the community reap benefits as well, said Bill Sisson, coordinator for health-care ministries with the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. Sisson works nationally to promote faith-based clinics and has helped about 40 churches in Oklahoma start a medical or dental clinic. In his experience, clinics give churches a unique opportunity to invest in the community.
“The free clinic provides a ministry to the church,” he said. “Even if (members) are not medical people, there are many things they can learn to do. There is a lot of support work that nonmedical people can do. Plus, having the constant contact with the flow of patients in and out of the church provides a contact base and prospects for the church they probably would not find any other way.”
Hospitals benefit from the free clinic because indigent care strains hospitals, Sisson said. It takes hospitals a long time and substantial money to treat a patient and to guide them into full recovery and health, he explained. In a free clinic, medical volunteers are able to diagnose many illnesses in their early stages and prevent the patient from going to the hospital to receive medical care. The hospital is then freed to care for patients with more severe illnesses and injuries.
Although two other free medical clinics serve the greater Belton area, Holmes noted, the Body of Christ Community Clinic in Belton is the most convenient for a majority of patients. A free medical clinic in Temple has operated more than 20 years, but patients have to show documentation of a job and proof of income. A free clinic in Killeen accepts anybody, but many residents in the Belton area lack the gas money to get there, Holmes said.
“Forming this clinic, (we) fill in the gap between the two clinics in Bell County,” he noted. “Most of our patients fall between zero and 100 percent of the federal poverty index. Bottom line, this is a true, free community clinic.”
Holmes and Sisson both advocate for more clinics that follow the example of the Body of Christ Community Clinic, where local churches take initiative in addressing health-care issues in the community.
“It’s a God thing, and with all the tension and division in the nation over health care … it is a strategic time for the church to rise up,” Sisson said.
Editor’s Note: The 10th paragraph was edited after the article originally was posted to correct the name of ECHO to Empowering Community Healthcare Outreach.