US church urged to put justice in healthcare before charity

By agency reporter
March 16, 2008

The US United Methodist Church needs to think less about charity and more about social justice, according to the leader of the denomination's mission agency. Becoming a partner in establishing free health clinics across the United States may be one way to do that, Bishop Felton May said.

He spoke during the 10-13 March 2008 spring meeting of the Board of Global Ministries, where directors also elected a new chief executive - Bishop Edward Paup.

Bishop May noted that 2008 marks the 40th anniversary of a number of events, ranging from the founding of The United Methodist Church by its predecessor bodies to the assassination of the Rev Martin Luther King Jr to the unveiling of the Kerner Report, which stated that "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal."

The Kerner Report's information on poverty "reminds us of the unfinished agenda in the United States and the world," May added.

The bishop declared that "people are poor because we keep them that way" and suggested that the denomination needs to attack poverty with the type of one-two punch made famous by the boxer Joe Louis.

Pointing to the link between poverty and health problems, Bishop May spoke of his conversations with Jack McConnell, a retired physician and son of a Methodist minister, who is promoting the concept of retired medical personnel serving as volunteers to staff free medical clinics.

McConnell started Volunteers in Medicine in Hilton Head, South Carolina, after noticing that one out of three people who lived there had no access to health care. He also knew of other retired medical professionals who wanted to provide assistance and access to such people. In 1993, the Volunteers in Medicine Clinic was formed.

"Presently in the US, there are 160,000 retired physicians, 350,000 nurses, and 40,000 dentists," the Volunteers in Medicine website states.

"Most are looking for a meaningful way to spend their retirement. Not only do many retired medical professionals still want to practice, they need to practice. Serving those in need is as therapeutic for the caregiver as it is for the care recipient."

The clinic has a "culture of caring" based on the idea that "how people are treated during a visit to the clinic is as important as the medical care they receive." An alliance of such clinics already has been formed across the country, and AARP is a partner.

Bishop May spoke about the possibility of the board working with the alliance through its Health and Welfare and Volunteers in Mission programs. "I think we can have a winner," he said.

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