In Resurrection’s immediate neighborhood, all the other mainline Protestant congregations and most of the Roman Catholic churches have either closed or relocated to suburbia. While the number of members declined, the makeup of Resurrection slowly changed from all white a little over thirty years ago to now about half African American and half European American.
But change in the surrounding community has been even greater. Resurrection Church is now in the heart of the East Side African American community. The streets around Resurrection have been devastated in recent years by high crime and poverty rates, deteriorated housing, and an infestation of drugs. The congregation, true to its mission statement —“Blooming Where God Planted serves its neighbors through four Narcotics Anonymous groups, four Head Start classes, a six-week Summer Day Camp and Vacation Bible School, and a food pantry. It also serves as a site for the Buffalo Hearing and Speech Program and is a partner with Habitat for Humanity in building and renovating houses in the neighborhood.
It was in the fall of 1998 that the first seed was planted regarding the arena of health ministry. Pastor Michael Blackwell of St. John’s Lutheran Church in suburban Depew told me about another Lutheran pastor, Arndt Braaten, who had gone to medical school and wished now to tie together his interests in ministry and medicine. Through a series of steps, Braaten had come to Buffalo several times to look at the possibilities of locating here for his residency. He had contacted several area physicians who were committed Christians interested in meeting the needs of the inner city. With Pastor Braaten’s vision in mind, Pastor Blackwell and I looked at the building at 1609 Genesee, right next to Resurrection Church, which might become available if the community organization then using it followed through with its plans to relocate.
While we were unable to convince Braaten to come to Buffalo, his legwork proved invaluable in revealing to us the extent of the need around us, aswell as possible resources. So we set up a Medical Task Force of church and community folks, who discovered that ours was a federally designated “Medically Underserved Area.”
While this was going on, the building next to Resurrection Church was vacated by the community organization and the city made major renovations to it, spending somewhere between $250,000 and $400,000 for a ramp and elevator to make the two-story facility handicapped accessible, as well as for a new roof, furnace, windows, and basement floor. Waiting for the building to become available took patience. The city told us to get an appraisal if we wanted to buy it. Because of neighborhood conditions, the appraisal came back at $35,000. We offered the city $25,000, and they took it! Resurrection Church raised the money to buy the building as part of its Ninetieth Anniversary Drive. It also received a $10,000 grant from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s “In the City for Good” fund.
As the building at 1609 Genesee was at long last about to come into our possession in September 2001, I contacted Dr. Chester Fox of the University of Buffalo Medical School, one of the individuals Arndt Braaten had met and whom I had come to know as a committed Christian who was open to the Lord’s direction. When I shared with Dr. Fox that we now had a building in which to conduct a free clinic, he was amazed. Less than twenty-four hours earlier, five medical students had asked him if he knew of a way they could do volunteer work in the inner city. Truly this seemed like the kairos, the “right time,” and that the Lord was ready for this work to go forward.
Thus the Lighthouse Free Medical Clinic began on October 1, 2001, with Dr. Fox, the five students, and a total of one patient that first evening. It began in the church basement and was to be open Wednesday nights from 6 p.rn. to 8 pm. The number of patients remained low through that first winter. However, one of our church members, Mr. Edgar Parks learned it was possible to get the free labor of inmates from the Collins Correctional Center for help in finishing renovations on our newly acquired building. The inmates helped plaster and paint, and by the beginning of March 2002, the Lighthouse moved out of the church basement and into its new home.
With the coming of spring, the number of weekly patients began to grow. We probably “arrived,” however, when we were swamped one night in July with over forty neighborhood boys needing physical exams in order to play in an area football league in the fall. A total of seventy-three boys were served in this way. Without the exams, which most of their families couldn’t afford through private doctors, the boys would not have been able to be involved in that worthwhile activity, so important in keeping them off the city streets and giving them a healthy outlet for their energies.
While our efforts through the free clinic continued to grow and gain recognition both in the local and larger community, we knew that much more was needed to properly serve the community. Having retired in mid-2002, I renewed the pursuit of a full-time medical practice unsuccessfully. However, in attending Christian Community Health Fellowship conferences and in other ways, I built a relationship Dr. Myron Glick of the Jericho Road Family Practice on Buffalo’s West Side, another of Arndt Braaten’s “discoveries.” In February 2003, Dr. Glick called and invited me to have lunch with him. The eventual result of thatlunch was the agreement of Resurrection Church and the Jericho Road Family Practice to collaborate to bring his family practice into our facility at 1609 Genesee Street.
One of our major obstacles was the need to renovate our one large room, which had folding partitions between exam areas, into a number of private exam rooms. Resurrection Church, truly a group of risk-takers, rose to the challenge and spearheaded the raising of about $70,000 (including a $10,000 grant from M & T Bank) beginning in the fall of 2003. The renovations began in May 2004.
In the meantime, through our relationship with Dr. Glick and the Jericho Road group, Resurrection benefited from a CCHF/Compassion Capital Program financial sub-award that made it possible for us to buy all the equipment and furniture needed to outfit the office at 1609 Genesee. A second sub-award has paid for the computer system and electronic medical records necessary for the Jericho Road medical practice to participate in and oversee the health-care program at 1609 Genesee.
The Lord was also opening up other opportunities. In addition to grant writing, I was raising financial support by speaking at numerous Lutheran churches in the area about the Lighthouse ministry. At one church the congregation’s president introduced himself as Dr. Matt Cote, a member of the faculty of the New York Chiropractic College in our area. As a result of Dr. Cote’s willingness, a collaboration between church and college was agreed upon in which the college would provide chiropractic care two mornings a week. A member of the college’s faculty, Dr. Gerald Stevens, would supervise the interns. Building upon the reputation of the Lighthouse Free Medical Clinic, which by September 2004 had served over 1,100 different patients, the decision was made to call this program the Lighthouse Free Chiropractic Clinic.
Meanwhile, we were contacted by long-term friends and colleagues at the Samaritan Pastoral Counseling Center, which had been in our area for some forty years. The SPCC was able to gain two small grants, making it possible to place a counselor from its staff at the health center on a part-time basis. We are pleased that they provided the Rev. Len Tomlinson, an African-American pastor, as the counselor for this satellite. He has effectively helped to underscore the relationship between physical health and spiritual/ emotional health.
Our most recent program to fall into place involves the African-American Smoke Freedom Project, which is an outreach program of Buffalo’s Roswell Park Cancer Institute. It will be using the center to reach out to the larger community in a number of ways in its cancer prevention program under the leadership of its project director, Mrs. Leslie Blair, a member of Resurrection Church.
What is amazing to me is how one small urban congregation, by raising a need and attempting to meet it, has been able to bring together such a wide variety of resources. In addition to the larger faith community, on both congregational and denominational levels, we have been blessed by the involvement of the University of Buffalo Medical School, the jericho Road Family Practice, the New York Chiropractic College, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the Samaritan Pastoral Counseling Center, a major area bank, and individuals and groups throughout Western New York.
September 26, 2004, was a beautiful day - beautiful for the people of the East Side of Buffalo, Resurrection Church, and so many others who helped bring us to that day of celebration — as we held the dedication and open house of our renovated health center. The health center is, of course, a work in progress, and there is much that still needs to be done. We can celebrate, yes, but we cannot coast. God is not finished with us yet!
Charles Biegner, M Div., is Pastor Emeritus of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Buffalo, New York. He continues to spearhead much of the organizing and administrative activity carried out on behalf of Resurrection Church as they partner with various healthcare organizations to provide holistic healthcare in Buffalo. He can be contacted at [email protected]
The neighborhood around the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Resurrection on the East Side of Buffalo mirrors many inner-city communities that have suffered the effects of middle-class flight to the suburbs, red-lining, and all the other urban ills. In addition, Buffalo has been crippled by a reduction in population from 600,000 in the 1950 census to fewer than 300,000 people today.