Planting Community Health Centers
7 stories from around the world
By Andrew McChesney
A lifestyle-change coach leads fitness classes in Britain. Health-care professionals discuss healthy living on a weekly radio program in Indonesia. A 73-year-old volunteer feeds 350 young children and retirees every day in South Africa.
And a hand-cranked water pump draws scores of people to a church in Mozambique. These are some of the most active Adventist-run community health centers in the world.
The health centers—some new, others open for a decade or more—aim to provide a Christ-modeled blend of physical and spiritual healing to local communities. And they might inspire you as your church looks to initiate or expand its outreach efforts. Adventist leaders have prioritized plans to make every Adventist church a community health center, and the initiative gained momentum this summer when 1,150
participants from 81 countries attended a conference organized by the Health Ministries Department in Geneva, Switzerland, to learn how to start programs in their own communities.
“We would love to see the world church laying hold of the concept of every church becoming a community health center, promoting health in every way, and that way being relevant to the communities in which we live both physically and, ultimately, spiritually,” said Peter Landless, Health Ministries Department director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. “That way every member becomes a medical missionary,” he said.
The steps to opening a community health center are simple, according to health professionals and church leaders:
- identify a need in your community
- find qualified church members and programs to address the need
- determine expenses and how to promote the initiative
- practice what you preach
The community health center might offer stop-smoking classes and vegetarian cooking lessons in its own building. But many church members have found that participating can be as simple as organizing a soup kitchen, a support group, or a free clinic. The service might be provided once a week, every other week, or once a month.
“The challenge for a church in setting up a separate community health center is: Where will they get the funding? said Dr. Jun Negre, health ministries director for the Southern Africa Union Conference, which includes South Africa, Namibia, Swaziland, and Lesotho.
Whether a standalone building or a community service, there is no wrong way to open and operate a community health center as long as it follows the principle of “Christ’s method alone,” people involved in outreach programs on five continents said in interviews.
The principle, as described by Adventist Church cofounder Ellen G. White in the book The Ministry of Healing, is simple: “The Savior mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’?”*
Also, Landless said, centers must make sure all programs are evidence-based and stay within the parameters of best health practices.
So how do you go about opening a community health center? Here are the stories of seven.
South African Meals and More
The Ashbury Adventist Center, located in Bloemfontein, South Africa, opened in 1999 when six Adventists bought a broken-down house in an impoverished neighborhood and turned it into a soup kitchen. As the crowds swelled, the center decided to team up with Meals on Wheels, a nonprofit organization that feeds the poorest in South Africa and has links to ADRA, the Adventist relief agency.
These days, a long line of people form as the center’s manager, Violet Grobbelaar, 73, and three other volunteers serve bowlfuls of hot food.
“More than 350 young children and elderly are fed a balanced vegetarian meal from the center every day,” said Lincoln de Waal, pastor of a small chapel at the community center and a larger church in the city. Costs are kept low because volunteers do all the work and the center spends no money on advertising.
“A board in front of the property is used to identify the center,” de Waal said. “Banners, invitations, and word of mouth are the most effective ways of advertising the programs and seminars.”
When the center first opened, church members covered 80 percent of the US$425 monthly budget and local businesses picked up the rest, de Waal said. Today, monthly expenses total $1,180 and are split between church members and a subsidy of $710 from the regional Meals on Wheels office.
“Funding is an unresolved problem, and we cannot present or implement a variety of programs or acquire the necessary equipment in order to do more for the community,” de Waal said. In addition to the soup kitchen, the center offers Vacation Bible School programs, a health awareness week, and enditnow seminars on domestic violence. Twice a year about 30 people gather at a bereavement seminar to hear a psychologist speak about coping with the death of a loved one from HIV/AIDS or drug abuse. De Waal leads Sabbath worship services and performs marriages in the chapel. Four people have been baptized.
The Ashbury Adventist Center, one of the few stand-alone facilities in southern Africa, is not dependent on any person but God, de Waal said. “In 1999 the six founding members started the center without a pastor,” he said. “The center is managed by church members, and the center will continue to serve the community with God’s help as long as there are volunteers.”
New Zealand Books and DVDs
The Balance Wellness Center opened in Invercargill, New Zealand, after its three founding members—Dr. Amy Mullen, a general practitioner, Dr. Kimball Chen, a psychiatrist, and Pastor Victor Kulakov—held consultations with city hall and several community agencies to determine local needs.
Based on what they learned, the center opened in 2007 with a lending library stocked with the best and the latest books and DVDs and a desktop computer where people could browse a center-approved site for more information on select topics. The center also offers workshops, seminars, and conferences themed around physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. “These meetings have grown really big,” Kulakov said.
At first the center advertised in the local newspaper and on its Web site. But many people visit these days on the recommendation of friends or local agencies, Kulakov said. “A number of local agencies are referring their clients to us, and the agencies themselves come to borrow books and other resources,” he said.
The center’s monthly budget of $2,125 to $2,835—depending on the number of programs—comes from local church donations, ADRA, and the local conference, among other sources. More than 100 people have been baptized as a result of the center, but Kulakov stressed that the focus was “to genuinely help people have better lives,” not to win converts.
“We keep the separation between the church and the center very clear,” he said. “When people come to our seminars, they know that we won’t be selling them Adventism. At the same time, they get excited about what we have to say and they are open to listen more about spirituality.”
The focus on building relationships rather than baptisms initially made it difficult to excite some church members about volunteering. “We are used to helping people if we have a good report to send to the conference,” Kulakov said.
The future of the Balance Wellness Center does not depend on a pastor but on finding qualified volunteers, Kulakov said. After cofounding the center, he has left his pastoral position to work as director of family relationships ministries for the New Zealand Pacific Union Conference. “I have left, but it is still going strong because we had a good leadership team in place,” Kulakov said.
British Fitness Clubs
The Adventist Church in Britain and Ireland has spent the past year training church members to conduct a variety of health programs, including cooking classes, and it hopes to launch community health centers in many local churches in 2015, said Sharon Platt-McDonald, health ministries director for the British Union Conference.
But in the meantime, some church members have taken the lead on their own.
Joni Blackwood, a lifestyle-change coach in London, started fitness classes in her church several years ago with the support of local city authorities. The programs grew so large that they could not be contained in community halls and were later moved to larger facilities.
“It has been extremely successful and our reputation is solid, so much so that I have been called twice as an expert witness to the Healthier Communities Select Committee,” Blackwood said. The committee is comprised of local city council members.
Blackwood said she has been training more “fitness evangelists” to open community health centers in other parts of London as well as in the cities of Reading, Luton, Bristol, and Manchester.
Mozambique Water Pumps
Hundreds of churches in Mozambique are community health centers thanks to hand-cranked water pumps.
Maranatha Volunteers International, a nonprofit Adventist organization, is in the process of building 1,000 simple churches in the southeast African country and, in an effort to make the churches more relevant to their communities, church leaders decided to dig wells with water pumps at each location.
“This may sound very simple in terms of people in places where water is readily available by just turning on the faucet,” said Alex Llaguno, health ministries director for the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division. “But in many places in Mozambique, and in Africa, some have to walk 10 kilometers or more just to get this basic need into their homes.” More than 700 churches have been equipped with the inexpensive water pumps.
“These water pumps have been a tremendous success in addressing the needs of the communities,” Llaguno said. “At the same time that these wells give physical water, they also are a means by which people are introduced to Jesus, the Water of Life.”
Kenyan Cakes and Yogurt
Members of the Kingeero Seventh-day Adventist Church in Kenya noticed a need for a community health center to assist AIDS orphans and widows after caring for people with HIV/AIDS for a decade.
The church in Wangige Town, 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) from Nairobi, has run a training center for the Adventist AIDS International Ministry since 2002, supporting hundreds of people with HIV/AIDS and more than 600 AIDS orphans. So church members opened the community center in 2012.
The center makes bread, cakes, and yogurt daily, said Gabriel Maina Gathungu, HIV/AIDS coordinator for the Kingeero church. It also provides a variety of services, including free clinics, counseling, and referrals.
While demand is high, money can be scarce. “We still have big problems with our project,” Gathungu said. “The activities were supposed to be an income-generating project that ran itself, but this has not been achieved.”The center has a monthly budget of $910 and is funded by the local church, the Adventist AIDS International Ministry, and an Asian businessman in Nairobi. People learn about the center through advertising in schools and churches. The center maintains a databank of church
members who can be called for help as volunteers.“The center will be there as long as there is a need,” Gathungu said. “There is still a demand and need.”
Indonesian Massage and Health Food
A group of Adventists from five churches in Jakarta got together in 2008 and opened Club Sehat, or the Health Club, in a rented building. Today, four Club Sehats are operating in the Indonesian capital, and more are planned. Each Club Sehat offers free health seminars, simple health check-ups, simple hydrotherapy treatments, Swedish massage, and lifestyle consultations. It also has a chapel and a health food store.
The centers have proved a hit with residents, said Arlaine Djim, a local leader. “People who come to our
centers keep telling their families and friends about us,” she said. People also visit after hearing about Club Sehat during a weekly radio program hosted by health-care professionals associated with the center. Each health seminar attracts 30 to 100 non-Adventists, Djim said, and many stay for a 30-minute spiritual talk afterward.
Rent is the biggest expense, and each center costs $715 to $860 per month. When a center first opens, the church’s Jakarta Conference subsidizes its rent for 12 months. Then it’s up to the center to survive. In the second year a center aims to raise a third of its expenses from donations, a third from the health food store, and a third from special offerings given in the chapel. By the third year 50 percent of financing comes from the store and 50 percent from the chapel, Djim said.
The centers’ biggest challenge is finding qualified volunteers. “We just conducted a four-month urban evangelism training program but still lack enough people,” she said.
U.S. Cooking Classes
Kristina’s Kitchen, a small vegetarian café, health food store, and bakery in rural Kentucky only opened in June 2014. But it has been five years in the making. The roots
of Kristina’s Kitchen stretch back to 2009, when its owner, Kristina McFeeters, began teaching a monthly cooking class at a public community center.
Word spread quickly about the young Adventist woman who cooked with only fruits and vegetables, and McFeeters soon received requests to teach the same class in several towns. A health food store offered to sponsor the class at its store, and the local government health department asked for classes.
The cooking class moved into Kristina’s Kitchen in Whitley City, which has a population of barely 1,100, in June and features one fruit or vegetable each month. “It was opened specifically to educate people on health, to help people see that healthy food can really taste good, to form friendships with the community, and to be used as an evangelism center,”
said McFeeters, who serves as health ministries director in her local Stearns Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Kristina’s Kitchen is located on Whitley City’s main street, next to the courthouse, and bears a large, lighted sign meant to attract customers. Startup capital was provided by Kristina McFeeters, her husband, and her parents. Two local Adventist churches pay for free literature placed in the establishment and the cost of food for the cooking class.
“Thankfully, apart from the initial cost of getting started, the center seems to be largely paying for itself because it has no paid employees,” McFeeters said. While only 10 to 20 people have attended the cooking class every month over the years, the figure has broken all records for health classes in a community known as one of the unhealthiest in the state, McFeeters said.
“The health department has approached us numerous times asking what our secret is for having such a large attendance long-term,” she said. The results of five years of classes are also measureable. At least six families have become vegetarian, and more than 20 others have made significant changes to their lifestyles, McFeeters said. In addition, 10 people have asked for Bible studies, and most of the non-Adventists who attended an evangelistic series at the local church last fall came from the cooking classes.
Five years of friendship evangelism and health classes paved the way for the grand opening of Kristina’s Kitchen, which was attended by about 50 people, including cooking class students, city officials, and members of the local chamber of commerce, McFeeters said. “Barriers were broken down, bridges were built, and a large number of people in the community became excited when we announced our plans to open,” she said.