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Anatomy of a Blind Spot

Today's Christian Doctor - Winter 2002

“Spiritual blind spots” can hinder our most altruistic efforts, but God will reveal and heal these if we humbly ask and are willing to change. The result will be more effective service in Jesus’ name.

Six years ago my partners and I opened an inner city Christian medical clinic in Memphis, Tennessee. The four of us were friends from medical school, fresh out of residency training and brimming with idealism. While in medical school we worked with a local church in a housing project, running Saturday Bible clubs and summer Vacation Bible Schools.

The idea for our ministry grew from our experiences in New Orleans and from several other influences. For myself those influences included my involvement in Campus Crusade for Christ as an undergraduate, CMDA in medical school and the writings of men like Ron Sider and Tony Campolo.

The logical basis for our work went as follows: 1. There are many in our country who lack access to primary health care and who suffer disproportionately from illnesses; 2. Many of those same people have not heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, and also suffer spiritual illnesses; 3. The teachings of Jesus direct us to serve the needs of the poor and to proclaim His saving Lordship; 4. Therefore, we should create an evangelical Christian medical clinic that serves the medical and spiritual needs of the poor.

At the time, the logic seemed valid and straightforward. Despite what follows below, I still believe it is. What I didn’t know then, and am still learning now, is that my logical and theological ideas were true, but inadequate. They failed to take into account crucial issues, including race, culture, and most importantly, my own sinfulness.

We Built It—They Didn’t Come

Memphis has several neighborhoods that lack adequate primary health care. In our city of one million people, nearly four hundred thousand are poor enough to qualify for Medicaid or have no health insurance. The majority of these patients receive care from hospital Ers, county health department clinics or university clinics staffed by residents. Again, it just seemed logical: find the most medically underserved part of town, put a clinic there and prepare for the deluge of grateful patients. I’m embarrassed to admit it now, but that’s exactly what I expected. Furthermore, I assumed that patients, being thankful for this new service, would be immediately open to spiritual discussions and even conversion to my brand of evangelical Christianity.

Instead, during the first few months of operation we saw relatively few patients, not nearly enough to keep four doctors occupied. It became clear that if things didn’t improve, we would collapse financially. We tried advertising through posters at local businesses and churches. We did a radio ad on two African American stations. We got a big billboard on the neighborhood’s main street. We sent direct mail advertising to every household in the two zip codes surrounding the clinic. It helped a little. In truth, we were strangers to the community and to the black medical establishment that greatly influenced where Medicaid patients received their care. We lacked credibility with people who had previously seen well meaning but naïve white folks march into their neighborhood with solutions to the black community’s problems. At the time I was angry. Why were we struggling to get patients when we were so obviously well trained and rightly motivated to serve the neighborhood?

Over time, our patient visits greatly increased. By God’s grace we successfully convinced two of the African American managed care organizations to assign larger numbers of patients to our clinic. We avoided financial failure. We began to see 40 or 50 patients a day, and then even more. But we noticed something else. Many of the patients weren’t very thankful for the care we provided. Some remained suspicious of us. A few tried to manipulate us for various purposes: a disability claim, a narcotic addiction or a prolonged absence from work. Even some of the people we hired to work at the clinic, who we thought were on board with the purpose of our ministry, seemed distant and distrustful. We distributed countless bibles and tracts. We had morning devotions. We tried to engage patients with spiritual issues, but made seemingly little progress. I would not have admitted it openly, but these things also frustrated me. Didn’t the patients see that I was there to help them? Didn’t the employees appreciate the job? Didn’t they all realize that I could comfortably make more money working somewhere else?

Blind Spots

The human eye is obvious testimony to God’s creative wisdom. The complexity of design allows us to take in light and color through two eyes and coordinate it into a single detailed image. The most remarkable thing to me is the blind spot—a small section of the retina where the optic nerve and blood vessels enter the posterior aspect of the eye, which is devoid of rods and cones. No sensory signal is transmitted from this small area of our visual field, and yet we do not consciously notice the hole. The visual cortex somehow fills in the blank spot with color and light from the surrounding sections of the retina. The blind spot is aptly named for two reasons: it is an actual area of blindness, and, because of the filling-in phenomenon, we are blind to the fact that we’re partially blind.

I’ve learned that I have spiritual blind spots—areas of spiritual ignorance or sin that are often visible to others, but not to me. Most of the time I manage to “fill-in” or cover up my spots so that I remain happily unaware of my blindness.

However, I’ve also learned over time that it is a gracious gift from God when He reveals these spots to me. Sometimes He uses the Scriptures, sometimes painful experiences and sometimes the hard counsel of godly friends. It’s not pleasant to face the shameful reality when my blindness is revealed, but I know it’s ultimately for my good, “because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Hebrews 12:6)

Beyond Superiority

Because He is gracious, God has shown me some of my previously unrecognized attitudes of superiority and even racism. I had unconsciously adopted the widely held view that the struggles of the poor are largely of their own making. After all, it’s undeniable that many of the problems in the inner city are related to unwise personal, family and cultural choices. If the poor would just get off drugs, stop promiscuity, get married, get a job, etc., they would be able to provide for themselves and stop being a drain on the larger society. In short, if they would just be responsible and righteous like me, then things would be just fine.

The only problem with this perspective is that it is remarkably hypocritical. I judge a mom who’s a teenage single parent, because I come from a stable two-parent family. I judge a teenager who drops out of his failing high school, but I got a good education paid for by my parents. I judge a man for wasting money on a fancy cell phone, when I have an unnecessarily large home. In my heart of hearts, I actually think that I earned or deserve the good things I have. Conversely, I unwittingly assume that the poor would have such things if they were like me.

But, when I take off my Pharisaical glasses and rightly view the Gospel, I can see how offensive that sort of thinking is to Jesus. I am desperately needy, not just before my conversion, but now, 20 years later. Any material or spiritual blessings I’ve had (parents, wife, education, money, salvation, biblical instruction) are GIFTS from God. As 1 Corinthians 4:7 says: “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”

It’s very hard, maybe impossible, to serve someone you think inferior to yourself. My patients sensed that attitude of superiority from me, and it put a wall between us. And there are already enough walls. I’m white and most of my patients are black. I’m rich and most of my patients are poor. I’m well educated and most of my patients are students, graduates or dropouts of our failing public schools. Race is a particularly divisive problem in Memphis, the city where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

Two Choices

When the Holy Spirit shows us our sin, we’ve got two choices. If we’re wise, we pleadingly pray for help to turn from our sin and go the other way. If we don’t, we risk a very dangerous outcome—the hardening of our hearts. As God has revealed my sins of pride and racism, I’ve prayed that He would change my wicked heart. I believe He’s answering that prayer. I’ve got a long, long way to go, but He’s moving in me and it’s making a difference in my interaction with patients. I’ve noticed that I’m able to connect in ways I’ve never been able to connect before. I’ve moved from just listening to caring. With their permission, I commonly pray with patients about their struggles, and I share the gospel more than ever. We’ve seen some remarkable changes in some of our patients, including recovery from crack addiction, the resolution of debilitating fearful dreams and real progress with an eating disorder. I’ve taken a real interest in the history of racial problems in our nation; what I’ve learned has changed my mind in many ways. With more love and less judgment, I get to feel the joy of Jesus ministering through me. Now patients often thank me or send cards; a few have wanted to take my picture! With thanksgiving, I even see God working changes in the attitudes of several of our employees.

It Could Happen To You

There are many members of CMDS actively serving the medically needy in this country. It’s been my pleasure to get to know some of them through my involvement with the Domestic Missions Commission. One of our Commission’s goals is to encourage a larger number of CMDA members to consider ways that they can increase their own ministry to the poor. Not everyone is called to start an inner city health center (Note: If you think you are, we can help.) but nearly everyone can become more involved. There are numerous avenues, including:

  • Volunteering at local clinics for the needy.
  • Opening your practice to a manageable number of uninsured or poorly insured patients.
  • Lobbying your practice or hospital to increase their services to the underserved.
  • Looking for opportunities in your community.
  • Finding out the scope of the local need and who is meeting that need presently.
  • Interacting with others who have an interest in serving the poor through medicine and dentistry, via CMDA or other organizations like the Christian Community Health Fellowship.
  • Lobbying local and national representatives on behalf of the poor.

More than anything, ask God to reveal your spiritual blind spots. When He does, pray for His strength to move beyond them for His glory and the benefit of our less fortunate neighbors. That’s the kind of prayer He loves to hear.