Hope and Healing in Watts
Los Angeles is a dynamic city of diversity, creativity and growth. However, like all cities, there is a dark side to this “City of Angels.”
For a variety of reasons ranging from corruption to heightened immigration, the government at a federal, state and local level has slowly reduced health services in Los Angeles. 1 In the past decade, two school-based clinics and sixteen LA county clinics have closed their doors to the urban poor. 2 The population served by these facilities has migrated in many cases to the local emergency rooms. This has been one of the contributing factors to the closing of six hospital emergency rooms in the past five years.
Within south Los Angeles today there are three hospital ERs serving a population of 1.1 million. 3 Martin Luther King, Jr. once remarked that “Of all forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane”. 4
Instead of being in despair over what has been called “the largest primary care black hole in the country” we believe it is a strategic moment for the Church to follow its Christ-given mandate to value and serve the least of these.
Ten miles south of downtown Los Angeles is a community known as Watts. When most people hear of Watts, CA they associate it with the 1965 Watts Riots. Recently however this square mile in South LA became internationally known for another tragedy – a women’s avoidable death due to a lack of healthcare access.
On May 9th, 2007, Edith Isabel Rodriguez, 43, died in the waiting room of King-Drew emergency room of gastrointestinal perforation after writhing in pain on the floor for 45 minutes. 5 The entire incident was captured on security cameras and shown nationally and internationally on the evening news and the internet. Not one hospital staff member came to assist Mrs. Rodriquez. At one point, a janitor came through the room and actually cleaned the floor around her. Due to this case and others like it, in August 2007 the facility closed its doors.
The Watts Christian Health Center is birthed
The death of Mrs. Rodriquez occurred two blocks from where the Watts Christian Health Center (WCHC) recently opened. The Health Center is an outreach of Powerhouse Church. The founding pastor of the church, Rev. Todd Grant, is a missionary with an organization called World Impact. World Impact is a Christian missions organization that is committed to planting communitytransforming churches in America’s inner-cities. The organization was birthed out of Watts in 1965.
It all started when Dr. Keith Phillips, World Impact’s president, spoke at the Evangelical Free Church of Canejo Valley in June of 2005, and made an appeal for Christians to use their skills to serve in the city. While he was speaking the Holy Spirit impressed one of the congregation members, Arnie Balber, DDS, that he was to take the lead in starting an inner city dental clinic. Through prayer and many follow up meetings, a start-up plan was formed. Dr. Balber’s church raised $25,000 for initial expenses. Quality, discounted dental equipment was purchased from the University of Southern California. Dr. Balber was now equipped to do cleanings, x-rays, root canals, extractions and several other procedures.
In early 2007, the Watts Dental Clinic saw its first patients. The first community member was “Sam,” a long-time member of the Watts community and a member of Powerhouse Church. Sam had not been to the dentist in 30 years! When he visited, he had one stubborn tooth hanging on in his upper-front gum and several rear molar teeth which were diagnosed as experiencing “massive decay.”
After Dr. Balber finished working on Sam, he asked if we could pray with him. Sam gave an affirming nod. When the prayer finished Sam simply said, with tears streaming down his face, “I feel loved.” Sam followed this up by saying, “I see a future in this place!” What a powerful voice of dignity, hope and healing the church is when it shows up to serve! In the past year the dental clinic has been able to share God’s love with 460 patients.
Growth through Innovative Partnerships
In the summer of 2007 Rachel Dunham, a member of the Powerhouse Church plant team and a registered nurse, began to talk with the team about adding a medical arm to the Watts Christian Health Center. Bryan Sauter, a Physician Assistant from LA Christian Health Centers and Isaac Voss, the Director of World Impact Los Angeles’ Health Ministry, began to talk and dream with Rachel and Powerhouse Church about starting a one-day-a-week medical clinic alongside the dental clinic.
What emerged from the discussion was a synergistic partnership between Powerhouse Church, Los Angeles Christian Health Centers and World Impact. As the basic structure of the health center emerged, a volunteer physician named Adam Wass stepped onto the Health Center’s leadership team. Dr. Wass is a family physician from suburban Los Angeles. He was just the beginning of a large volunteer task force from both the suburban and urban church that stepped forward to serve.
On February 26th, 2008 the medical arm of the Watts Christian Health Center opened its doors with one physician, one physician assistant and a team of five nurses. The clinic offered a variety of primary care services ranging from cholesterol and diabetes screening to gynecological and referral services. In its first year the health center had 520 visits from community members.
When individuals hear about the WCHC they will often ask, “How do you practically integrate the health center and the church?” It is probably most effective to answer this question with a story.
Keith and Virginia were two of our earliest patients at Watts Christian Health Center. They were on their way to a hotel for the homeless when they saw the center’s welcome signs outside. When the staff met this tired and distressed middle-aged couple it was clear that life had been tough! The couple was seen by the physician, prayed with by Pastor Todd and connected with Powerhouse Church. All of this was done in the name of Jesus and at no charge.
A couple days later Keith and Virginia made decisions to accept Christ as Lord and Savior. As Pastor Todd was talking with them about being baptized, the Holy Spirit convicted them that after seven years of living together they should get married. Ten days later Powerhouse Church hosted its first wedding!
At the wedding Virginia did not have a family member to give her away. However this was not an issue because when Pastor Todd asked, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” the church members responded, “The Powerhouse Church family!” A week after their wedding Keith and Virginia were baptized. Even though they are still homeless, unemployed and uninsured, they have started their new life together as one in Christ and are consistently and joyfully growing in the Powerhouse church family.
The story of Keith and Virginia expresses some of the intentional means which have been implemented at the WCHC to express the Gospel in word and deed. Both the medical and dental clinics have a spiritual care coordinator that offers to pray with patients. If the patient is open to hearing the Gospel, it is shared with them. All of the WCHC staff, both paid and volunteer, are Christians and are encouraged to pray with guests as they are able. We are aiming to be a clinic in which we truly care for the whole person, body and soul.
In addition to the dental and medical clinics, the Powerhouse church also offers quarterly community health fairs. While we still offer to pray with the guests that come through, the primary medical focus of the health fairs is prevention and education. We also have a rotation of nurses who attend Powerhouse Church on Sundays and provide blood pressure screening and education for congregation members.
Sam, Virginia and Keith are just some of the examples of individuals that have come through the Watts Christian Health Center. The spiritual and physical need of Los Angeles’ poor is daunting. Therefore it is a strategic moment for the followers of Jesus, the Church, to announce the good news of the Kingdom in word and deed.
1 Jimmy H. Hara, “Life on the Edge: Cuts to L.A.’s Healthcare System Would Leave Us All Vulnerable,” Los Angeles Times, 29 July, 2008.
2 ed. L.A.D.o.P. Health, “Key Indicators of Health by Service Planning Area” (Los Angeles: Health, Office of, and Assessment and Epidemiology, 2002-2003).
3 Kurt Salmon Associates, “Critical Condition: Examining the Scope of Medical Services in South Los Angeles” (Los Angeles: California Endowment, 2007).
4 R.W. Diaz, “Unequal Access: the Crisis of Healthcare Inequality for low-income African-American residents of the District of Columbia,” Health Care Law Policy (2004) 7:120.
5 Charles Ornstein and Francisco Vara-orta, “Tragic Catch- 911 for Dying Woman,” Los Angeles Times, 13 June 2007.
6 Rick Donlon, “Plenary Address” (paper read at the annual Christian Community Health Fellowship Conference, Nashville, Tennessee, May 2008).
Isaac Voss is the Director for World Impact Los Angeles’ Health Ministry. He and his wife, Abigail, live in Los Angeles. You can learn more about World Impact by visiting www.worldimpactLA.org.