I was born in 1954 on a naval base in San Diego because my father was a pilot in the Korean War. I was only there two months before we moved back to Atlanta. Both sides of my family go back five generations in Atlanta.
We lived in a one-level, middle-class house atop a very steep hill. As a result of the very steep hill, my mother would not let me ride my bicycle outside of the driveway, so I had a 100-foot length on which to ride my bicycle. I was an only child.
Growing up, I thought of myself as an athlete, and I don’t ever remember not going to some sort of sports practice after school — football, basketball, and baseball. Not only did my parents go to every game I ever played, they went to every practice I ever had. At the time, it seemed perfectly normal.
My father was president of Zep Manufacturing, which produced industrial cleaning products. His nickname was Mouth of the South. He never met a stranger; he’d talk to a wall; and he was the proverbial guy who could sell ice to Eskimos. He’s 81 years old and still works 40 hours a week at the perfect job for him: selling air. Well, I should say he sells radio time. I, too, have his ability to sell anything, and I’d actually like to give selling ice to Eskimos a shot.
My mother was very sophisticated and before her time. She was incredibly smart and would have been CEO of a major corporation if women had been allowed to do that. Instead, she took leadership roles in the community.
My parents were not strict with me, but in large part because I didn’t need to be disciplined. I did what I was supposed to do.
Religion played a big role in our family. My father was Baptist, but my mother was Methodist, so by God, we were going to be Methodists! My mother took it very seriously, and I took it very seriously, too. Not only did I want to be the first in school to know the answer, I wanted to be the first in Sunday school to know the answer. I looked forward to going to Sunday school.
When I was 9 or 10, I remember the pastor of our church patting me on the head and saying, “This boy is going to make a fine preacher one of these days.” But then, I knew I didn’t want to be a preacher. I wanted to pitch for the Atlanta Braves. Yet I knew there was a chance — a small chance, I thought — that the Braves might not call me, so I needed a Plan B. I began to think about how I could be professionally involved in the church without having to preach 52 sermons a year.
At that age, I was reading the Bible, and so much of it was about healing the sick. I’d look around and think, “Where is all this healing the sick going on in my church? I don’t see it.” Was I missing something? So as a preteen, I was asking the question, “What happened to the healing ministry part of the Bible? It’s crystal clear here in the Bible, but I don’t see it in my church.” And then I thought, “Is that something I could do?”
By the time I became a teenager, I was definitely on the path of wanting to do something in the ministry of healing the body and spirit. I just needed to figure out exactly what and how.
All of my subsequent education was specifically designed to best equip me to carry out my ministry. I was not quite sure how it would play itself out, but I knew I’d need to go to both seminary and medical school to accomplish what I wanted. I received a master of divinity degree from Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut, and then I earned my medical degree from Emory University in Atlanta.
One day while I was in seminary, I walked into the chaplain’s office of Yale Medical School. There, on the chaplain’s desk, I see a little pamphlet titled, “How to Start a Church-Based Health Center.” I said, “That’s it! That’s what I want to do.”
The pamphlet was written by a Lutheran pastor in Chicago named Granger Westburg. That next summer, 1978, I went to Chicago to visit him. While there, I met a woman named Janelle Goetcheus, who was running a health clinic in Washington primarily for Salvadoran refugees. I went to visit her at The Church of the Savior, and it totally lit my fire.
I finished seminary, finished medical school, and then I was ready to start my health care ministry for the working poor. I read that Memphis was the poorest major city in America. I said, “Well, why not Memphis.”
I didn’t know a soul in Memphis when I arrived in 1986. I became an associate pastor at St. John’s United Methodist Church and began the launch of my health and healing ministry for a church-based health clinic.
I found an old, deteriorating building at 1210 Peabody, across the street from the church. Frank McRae, the senior pastor, took a chance on me and my dream. He donated his entire pastor’s discretionary funds to buy that dilapidated boarding house — the one we’re in today — and I rolled up my sleeves. The Plough Foundation, Central Church, and Methodist Hospital then gave us the funding to renovate the building and open the clinic.
On September 1, 1987, the Church Health Center opened its doors with one doctor — me — and one nurse. I was 33 years old, and we saw 12 patients that day.
Twenty-six years later, Church Health Center has grown to become the largest faith-based, privately funded primary care clinic in the country, and 55,000 people in Memphis depend on us for their health care. We’ve got a staff of 250 that shares the ministry of healing and wellness. Hundreds more volunteer time and services, and a network of medical specialists makes sure that the uninsured working poor get the same quality of health care as anyone with a Cadillac insurance plan.
Church Health Center is unique in that … What sets us apart from other community clinics around the country is that the center is fundamentally about the church. God calls us to do healing work. Jesus’s life was about healing the whole person — body and spirit — and the church is Jesus in the world. His message is our message; his ministry is our ministry.
Our mission is … simple but complex. We seek to reclaim the church’s biblical commitment to care for our bodies and our spirits. Our ministries provide health care for the working uninsured and promote healthy bodies and spirits for all. What we’ve done and will always continue to do is to stand in the gap. We look at what needs to be done that nobody else is doing. That defines our scope of work.
Funding for the center comes from … We do not depend on government funding. Why? Because the government cannot do the work of the church, and neither could we ask it to. The thought of a church being federally funded is absurd. Either the faith and business communities support the Church Health Center, or we have to close the doors.
Medical doctor vs. ordained minister … I spend most of my time playing doctor, and I think most people think of me on the doctor side of things. But everything about me is driven by the faith component.
My biggest concern about opening this clinic … I wondered if anyone would show up! Also, I worried about people taking advantage of our low-cost services. Because we operate on money given to us by others, I want to be good stewards of those gifts. I used to patrol the clinic’s parking lot, looking for “luxury cars.” One day, I saw a Jaguar, and I stormed through the clinic to find the driver. I demanded to know how he could afford a Jaguar and still qualify for care at the clinic. It turned out that the driver was a low-level worker at a Jaguar dealership. When his old car wouldn’t start, his boss let him use his Jag so that the worker wouldn’t miss his doctor appointment. After that day, I ceased the parking lot patrols. Jumping to conclusions can actually get in the way of providing health care to the poor.
Early challenges included … a million things! Funding, special permits, political posturing, physical labor, and neighbors’ concerns. Then there were the “small things” we ran into, such as learning that when you order a blood pressure cuff, that’s exactly what you get: just a nylon blood pressure cuff. What you don’t get is a bladder to blow the thing up!
Initially, the neighborhood viewed the clinic … with fear. When we went before the Land Use Control Board and City Council to petition for a special-use permit, the crowds of people overflowed onto Main Street because “terrible things will happen if the Church Health Center ever opens. We don’t want this thing in our neighborhood.” To say the least, people were very concerned about what type of people the center would draw and how that would impact their neighborhood. We had to prove ourselves, but in the end, every person who ever opposed us either came to me personally and apologized or became a financial donor or became a volunteer.
My greatest moment of despair … I don’t even know what that word means; I was that driven. And I remain so.
My very first patient … was a 6-year-old girl named Kimberly. She was brought in by her grandmother, who also became a patient. If I remember correctly, Kimberly came in to get a physical for school.
When I closed the clinic doors after the first day, I … probably looked at my watch and thought, “I’ve got to be back here at 7 o’clock tomorrow morning!” We’ve always kept the same hours: 7:30 a.m. till 9 p.m. I knew I needed to head on home.
The average clinic visit costs … $25. Our fees are determined by a sliding scale based on income.
I get frustrated when … When I first began, I never dreamed that the government would care about what we do. I get very frustrated over the politics that get involved in health care support — and that goes for the left and the right.
The Church Health Center Wellness … opened in January 2000 as a part of the Church Health Center’s wellness ministry. It’s a state-of-the-art wellness facility that combines the wisdom of disease prevention, the experience of health professionals, and the love and encouragement of the faith community. Currently, the center gets about 125,000 visits per year. Part of the reason that efforts at health care reform fail is because our health care system is built on the premise of waiting for people to get sick, and then having them come through the medical doors, where technological wizardry will fix them. That’s not health care. Caring for health means attending to the things that help keep people from becoming sick in the first place. That belief is manifested at the wellness center.
The Affordable Care Act … will not change a thing in our mission or ministry. Rather, we’re dramatically growing what we’re doing. For example, in 2,500 pages of the Affordable Care Act, the words “adult dentistry” do not appear. We consider dentistry to be an economic issue. You cannot go from a $7-an-hour job to a $10-an-hour job if your teeth are unhealthy.
My feelings about technology … We have an unholy love affair with technology. We’ve come to believe that we can live our lives absolutely any way we want to because when we break, technology will fix us. The state of prescription medications follows the same pattern as technology.
The public’s biggest misperception about the Church Health Center ... is that we’re only a clinic that takes care of poor, sick people. Yes, we do that, but our goal is that for every dollar we spend on treatment, we spend a dollar on prevention. We’re about helping people — rich and poor — live a healthy life.
The future of America’s health care system … No one has a crystal ball big enough to know. Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you,” and so far, he’s been right. We’ll just keep providing the kind of care that is not available anywhere else, and we’re going to do it at a quality that would be good enough for my mother.
My favorite part of the day … We see people who have every reason in the world to be bitter, but they’re not. In fact, they think of themselves as fine and blessed. Being with people like that and getting to ask the question, “How do I get to be fine and blessed? What do you know about life that I need to know?” That happens virtually every day.
Euthanasia … I believe God created us to enjoy life. I think what we’re currently doing at the end of a person’s life is immoral. We are torturing our parents and grandparents and the people we love. People are spending the last two weeks of their life in a hospital bed with a tube stuck down their throat, in a place where they never turn the lights off, around people who do not know them well enough to love them. That is immoral. Do I think we need to help people die well? Absolutely. No one should die alone.
Other ways I fulfill the center’s ministry … I write books, have a blog, make a presence on social media, and am a newspaper columnist. I’m also actively involved with the Urban Youth Initiative, Memphis and Shelby County Medical Society Ethics Committee, an inner-city charter school called Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, and Healthy Shelby, among many others. I just joined the board of The Orpheum because of its we-love-Memphis attitude.
As a student, my plan to graduate from both seminary and medical school … was met with skepticism. No one believed I could do both. They believed I would quit after completing one of them, and as such, my father encouraged me to attend medical school first so that when I did quit, I’d at least be equipped to be a doctor instead of a preacher. But I went to seminary first because that was my driving force.
The initial G in my name stands for … I like to tell people that when I came out, my mother looked down and said, “Great Scott!” In reality, the G stands for Glenn. For some reason, my mother really liked the idea of my name being “G. Scott.” In deference to my mother, I’ve signed my name “G. Scott” all my life.
I didn’t want to become a preacher because … the thought sent shivers down my spine, and it still does. That is the least favorite thing I do.
The saints in my life … I’ve met three living saints in my life. Michael McLean, chair of the religious studies department at Rhodes College, took me under his arm. Most important, he introduced me to my second living saint, Frank McRae, the senior pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church. There are 100 white preachers out there who will tell you they marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. In my opinion, all but three are lying. Frank was one of the three. Frank did shuttle diplomacy between the Memphis mayor, Henry Loeb, and the King camp. When Frank came to St. John’s, the church was totally devastated by white flight, and Frank preached the sermon he called “The Queen of Dead.” If St. John’s was going to survive, it had to give up the mentality of being a “queen church” and become a service church, which is exactly what it did. It started a food kitchen and food pantry and acted as an incubator for small nonprofit upstarts, such as Friends for Life. The third living saint is Howard Montgomery, father of Steve Montgomery, the pastor at Idlewild Presbyterian Church. Steve and I went to seminary together, and I lived with his parents while I went to Emory Medical School.
My faith was tested … It’s tested every day. The definition of faith is that you have doubt. That’s just part of living the faithful life. Even Jesus — in the Garden of Gethsemane — says, “Father, take this from me.” I think that demonstrates that Jesus had doubt, but that did not stop him from doing God’s will.
Most people don’t know that I … have three fairly uncommon talents: I sleep like a rock; I have the ability to be totally present in the moment; and I don’t dwell on or worry about the past or the future.
A childhood lesson I learned … My father was a punter for his high school football team. Every fall he took me out in a field and kicked footballs to me. For every ball I caught, he gave me 25 cents to spend at the state fair. For two months before the fair arrived, that’s what we’d do at night. He’d kick; I’d catch. If I dropped the ball though, I lost a quarter. The closer we got to the fair, the shorter the daylight hours, so there was less time for me to catch footballs and make money. Therefore, I told my father keep kicking in the dark, only to discover that I dropped more balls than I caught, and lost money.
My mother … absolutely hated to cook. In the course of my life, I’m willing to bet I ate at Morrison’s Cafeteria 1,842 times and at The Char-House 832 times. We ate out at least six days a week. And when my parents went out in the evening, my mother invariably made meatloaf for me. Interestingly, she made the best meatloaf on the planet.
My family … I met my wife, Mary, when she was singing in the choir at St. John’s. She was trained as an operatic singer and has one of the greatest voices I’ve ever heard. We have two children. Sidney is a 14-week-old Bernese mountain dog; Sloan is a 10-year-old Bernese mountain dog.
I have never … drunk a beer or smoked a joint. I have absolutely no interest in those things. Mary and I are in a wine club, and I drink milk!
I never realized … that all the reading my mother did while I was growing up was religious material. I thought she was just reading pabulum. After she died and I was in seminary, I came across her books, and the pabulum my mother was reading were the same textbooks I was reading at Yale Divinity School.
The question I’d like to ask God is … “Do I get in?”
The future of the Church Health Center … We’re getting ready to move into the Sears Crosstown building. For me, personally, that’s incredibly anxiety-producing to think about leaving this corner. I’ve spent 26 years on this corner, in this office. But that’s what we need to do. Church Health Center is not walking away from Peabody Avenue. We’ll find other ministry uses that are compatible with our mission for the 12 buildings we currently occupy. But it’s incredibly important for our clinic and wellness center to be bound together under one roof. So I also cannot be more excited about moving to Crosstown, where we will build a bigger and better mousetrap.
Items still on my bucket list ... Add 10 more good friends to my life.
My final 2 cents ... My prophet of God on Earth, William Sloane Coffin, defines faith as jumping off a cliff and then growing wings. I hope to have that courage to look for the opportunities in life and not be afraid to jump off the cliff. Life is ultimately about joy. Sing with the angels.