G. Scott Morris ’83M


Healing the sick

Sharing what you have, even if you have very little,
is a noble sentiment.

Physician G. Scott Morris ’83M has seen the embodiment of this philosophy in one of his patients, a ninety-eight-year-old woman who picked cotton and worked as a housekeeper all her life. She saves a nickel a day and brings bags filled with the coins to the Memphis clinic Morris opened in 1987.

“She said it was to help us care for other people,” says Morris, clearly moved by the gesture.

Morris, who grew up in Atlanta, founded the Church Health Center in Memphis, Tennessee, to help the working poor, elderly, and homeless. The clinic is now the country’s largest faith-based health center for the poor.

“I went to medical school for the purpose of being able to do this, on a scholarship that had never been used–one had to first be a United Methodist minister and then go to medical school,” says Morris, who earned his Master of Divinity degree from Yale in 1979. “I chose to do so because the thought of preaching fifty-two sermons a year sent shivers down my spine.”

He also felt that religious leaders and congregations had been neglecting a significant part of their mission: to tend to people’s bodies as well as their spirits. “A third of the Bible is about healing the sick,” he says, “but churches have forgotten how to do this today.”

So Morris did some research and borrowed the best ideas from other non-profit clinics, particularly the Chicago-based Holistic Health Care, which was started by a Lutheran minister.

“I chose Memphis partly because it has historically been the poorest major city in America,” says Morris, who solicited donations to build the clinic from community leaders, churches, hospitals, and businesses.

The Church Health Center, which accepts no government funding, now has 40,000 patients for whom it is the primary health care provider. It has six full-time physicians and more than four hundred doctors and specialists who volunteer every few months. Most patients pay between $15 and $20 a visit, which includes medications and lab tests.

The Reverend Gary Gunderson, director of the Interfaith Health Program at the Rollins School of Public Health, has known Morris since 1992, when he visited the clinic to observe a cutting-edge example of a faith-health community alliance.

“In Memphis, Scott has built extraordinary relationships among sectors that too often don’t even talk, much less find themselves in a common harness,” Gunderson says. “He does this by being a wide-open thinker, but also dirt practical and cold-bloodedly realistic about what is possible to do this week. And when you do that for twenty years, the Church Health Center is what you get.”

Many of the clinic’s patients work in low-wage service jobs–as cooks, migrant workers, waitresses, maids, laborers, clerks–where they lack health insurance but don’t qualify for Medicaid.

“Our patients don’t want free care,” Morris says. “They just want something they can afford.”

The clinic also serves refugees, both documented and undocumented.

“In many ways, we’re the United Nations of Memphis,” says Morris, who, in addition to serving as executive director of the center, still treats patients. “Rarely a day goes by that I don’t see someone from Mauritania, in northwest Africa. How do you get from Mauritania to Memphis? I couldn’t tell you.”

The center has dental and eye clinics, as well, so that patients can maximize their time and not have to travel to three and four different offices.

“When you work a minimum-wage job, you can’t just take off and say, ‘I’m going to the doctor,’ or ‘I’m taking my parent or my child to the doctor.’ You might lose your job,” he says.

Recently, a seventeen-year-old came into the center with a hurt arm, which he had injured while working at a construction site. When Morris asked about his home situation, he discovered the teen’s father had been killed in a traffic accident and his mother had died of breast cancer.

“So he was the primary bread winner for his family,” Morris says. “The issue was how to get him back to work as quickly as possible. Since he is working to build our houses, and struggling to care for his family, surely we have an obligation to care for him.”

More than four hundred congregations donate funds and volunteer services to the center, from “the most conservative to the most liberal,” says Morris, who is also an associate pastor at St. Johns United Methodist Church in Memphis. “The array of communities who support the center is remarkable. We couldn’t all agree on the price of a cup of coffee, but what we do agree on is that God expects us all to care for those who are sick among us.”

But caring for patients is only half of what the Church Health Center does, says Morris. Its new Hope and Healing Center offers health education, exercise and nutrition programs, counseling and pastoral care, and children’s services. For this unique approach, the Department of Health and Human Services presented the center with the 2003 Innovations in Prevention award.

“For every dollar we put into treating disease, we put a dollar into preventing disease,” Morris says. “We focus on anything to keep people healthy rather than waiting until they are sick.”—M.J.L.



© 2005 Emory University