KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Jan. 24, 2019) -- At first, the free clinic at Magnolia Avenue United Methodist Church seems like a depressing place.
Ceilings are caving. Some of the toilets don’t work. Large trash cans catch water leaks from the roof. The rooms are so cold, the patients keep their coats on. The chill of January creeps in through cracked windows, but it’s easy to imagine that the stifling heat of July could be worse.
The church member who started this clinic, 80-year-old Russ Johnston, says he’s consulted God about the situation.
“I’ve prayed about it, and so far, if the Lord has answered, he hasn’t made it clear to my thick head,” Johnston says.
Is he discouraged? No.
“We’re providing care for a lot of people who don’t have alternatives, so you can’t be depressed about that,” Johnston said. “We don’t know where we’re going, but while we’re lost, we’re doing a lot of good, I think.”
The free clinic at Magnolia Avenue serves about 40 patients every Monday, sometimes as many as 60. Physicians, nurses, a social worker and volunteer coordinator donate their time. Medical students from the University of Tennessee join in the ministry, receiving one-on-one time with veteran physicians and unique lessons through working with the underserved.
“These med students are going to be doctors with a heart for people,” says Aleece Stewart, a retired registered nurse and volunteer.
The volunteers share stories of people who have come for help, including the woman who desperately needed a hip replacement, who was living in her car. Another man with pneumonia didn't have bus fare to the nearest ER, so he walked in frigid temperatures to the clinic.
Yet the future of the free clinic is in “limbo,” says Johnston, as the 94-year-old building continues to crumble. Last year, he raised $100,000 to convert Magnolia Avenue’s parsonage into a home for the clinic.
City officials have been unclear about whether a parsonage renovation will be able to meet clinic codes and regulations, Johnston claims. “What’s different here is we are a free clinic,” which may be acceptable in a church but not in another place, according to what Magnolia Avenue leaders have heard.
"The question is, do we spend the $100,000 to make this place more habitable?" Johnston said, referring to the clinic's current location. "Because it’s a gamble on how long this church survives. It’s not exactly a layup."
Johnston is a retired management professor who returned to his hometown 20 years ago. While looking for a caretaker for his mother-in-law, he encountered Magnolia Avenue United Methodist, a church that had seen its better days but still attracted volunteers and pastors who wanted to serve the inner city.
“It just kept stirring in my heart that I was supposed to come over here,” says Johnston, sitting on a sofa in the busy parlor that serves as triage. Donated medicines are shelved on a piano. The choir room, nursery, and pastor’s office now serve as examining rooms.
“The Lord wanted me to come over here so he could tell me what to do," Johnston said.
In 2012, the Rev. Van Sanks started a free Monday community lunch, which now feeds more than 100 every week. In May 2013, Johnston started the free clinic on Monday afternoons.
“The first 23 doctors I asked if they would be interested in volunteering said ‘no,’” Johnston said. Eventually, he found a crew of dedicated professionals. John Bushore, a retired family physician, is one of them.
“This keeps me sane, gives me some structure in my life, keeps me up to date,” Bushore said. “It’s a mess here, but it could be worse.”
“This is where I need to be,” said Linda Wagner, a licensed practical nurse. “I love helping these people. They don’t smile. They’re just sad. They need someone to give them a smile and a caring word.”
Even with the challenges of the aging building, Johnston doesn’t understand why more churches don’t offer health care to their communities.
“There’s got to be a need for this in other places. It’s such an important thing in the lives of the volunteers, not only in the patients,” he said. “They really only need someone who’s determined to make it happen.”
He’s waiting for answers about the clinic’s next steps as well as the future of the church, which has dwindled to 25 in average worship attendance. Johnston and Magnolia Avenue’s current pastor, the Rev. Dennis Loy, have talked with leaders in the Tennessee Valley District and the Holston Conference about the feasibility of renovating the church building, which also hosts a food pantry and clothes closet.
Years ago, the estimate to replace the church roof was $250,000, Johnston said.
“There are a couple of other churches that have talked about housing the clinic, but you know, this is the church that allowed it to happen, and I’m not excited about turning my back on it,” Johnston said, referring to Magnolia Avenue church.
Meanwhile, the volunteers just keep on working, helping the people who may have jobs but can’t afford their insulin. They keep on helping the people without money or insurance who are suffering from poor nutrition, depression, or an injury that won’t heal.
“This place could be so vital for the poor. This could renew the church in the inner city. Think of the life you could inject into the city,” said Dorothy Davison, a medical missionary who also volunteers at the clinic. On this day, she was struggling with a large donation of outdated feeding tubes, which the clinic didn’t need and had to find a way to dispose.
“We need the goodwill of the city and the goodwill of Holston Conference,” Davison said, shoving plastic coils and packing material back into a box. “They need to put themselves behind this church and clinic and say, ‘Let’s go.’”