The Streets of Memphis
Our Home, Our Calling, Our Mission Field
Today's Christian Doctor - Winter 2011
by John David Williamson, MD
Danny’s* quite an imposing figure when you meet him. He’s 6 feet 4 inches tall, weighs about 230 pounds and has teardrops tattooed on his face as part of a gang recognition symbol. But today, those teardrops are real as he tells me how fearful he is that he’s going to die from HIV. He’s looked for hope in so many places throughout his life—gangs, sex, the gay community, even the church he grew up in as a child. Yet, he’s still searching for it.
Danny wasn’t born into the same easy life as me. Sure, he made some bad decisions that have led to some incurable consequences—but I’ve made plenty of dumb mistakes myself. In fact, mistakes are something we actually have in common, but our lives look very different today primarily because of the two different cultures we were born into. The tables could have just as easily been turned.
I believe that with great power comes great responsibility. Like many of you, and with little of my own effort, I’ve become one of the most powerful people in the world—a middle to upper class American physician. I have opportunity, knowledge, security, money and power that most people in the world will never experience. And that is a great burden for me, a burden to use those things for the glory of God.
This exciting burden to glorify God is why my wife Jessica and I live in the inner city Memphis neighborhood where we also work. We want to invest our lives in places Jesus would, not in security or comfort or entertainment, but in people. Our patients are not just our clients; they are our neighbors and friends. Jessica is a Family Nurse Practitioner who lived here for four years as a single woman before we got married. She has developed deep relationships with women in our neighborhood who would otherwise view her as an outsider and not likely open up to her. Like Danny, many of them are looking for hope.
In Matthew, Jesus talks about our investments when He says the kingdom of heaven “will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them” (Matthew 25:14). Most of us recognize the parable of the talents, a story about how God has “entrusted His property” to us. For Jessica and me, this parable is one of the greatest motivating stories of our lives. God has given each of us abilities, money, time, education, power and other gifts that He expects us to put into good use for His kingdom. We want to invest those gifts in such a way that when He returns, we will hear that reply, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:24). Jesus has given us all we have, so He deserves all we are.
Medicine is one of the great gifts the King has given us. The fall of man in Genesis 3 brought about pain and suffering; in His sovereign mercy and grace, God often reverses that curse in people’s lives through medicine. One of my most influential mentors has called patient encounters “divine appointments,” and I agree with him. In medicine, people tell us things they’ve never shared with anyone else and allow us into places in their lives no one else has ever seen. We have a great opportunity to minister to people during these divine appointments in ways no one else can.
Doctors love to talk about statistics like prevalence, efficacy and morbidity, and we strive to improve those statistics through our work. However, the reality is that the overall mortality rate in medicine is 100 percent. Alleviating pain and suffering and curing disease are excellent goals that God has set forth for us. But only the gospel can heal the soul and change that mortality rate.
The last time I saw Danny, we ended our meeting with a long conversation about this healing of his soul. I told him that his HIV was under great control and will not likely be the death of him. But one day, something will be. We talked about how God wants him now, just as he is, though he has been told by his church that he must “clean up” his lifestyle before he can come to God. As he left, he gave me a big bear hug and, although he hasn’t quite found it yet, Danny is coming close to embracing that great hope he’s been searching for his whole life. That’s why we do what we do.
by Jon Hall, DDS
In 2002, I did a foolish thing. I was a freshman in college and like many underclassmen, I was still trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with my life. I remember having a “conversation” with God, telling Him that I’d commit to doing anything He wanted with my future and I’d make sure I followed through if He’d just show me the plan. I also specifically remember throwing in the caveat that my “anything” didn’t include any type of career in the healthcare field. But I was up for anything else. I always had an interest in overseas missions and was trying to find a non-medical path to working overseas. All in all, I thought it was a pretty spiritually legitimate plan. Over the next couple of years, my world got rocked as God started showing me that He had no interest in my plans and commitments; instead, He is all about my complete submission.
“Commitment” seems to be a buzz word for my generation. In churches, I hear the word all the time—pastors urging their congregations to be more committed, speakers and missionaries urging a bolder commitment through short and long-term service overseas, small group members pushing each other to commit deeper to seeking God, etc. It’s all good stuff, except when it’s not. For many of us, the concept of commitment is the perfect way to serve God while still holding onto control. That’s what I did. I maintained control of my plans while intermittently “committing” to mission trips, Bible studies or whatever I felt would appease God for that time in my life. It seemed spiritually legitimate at the time, but was ultimately a control issue for me. The word commitment had replaced the word submission in my life. It was a poor exchange since commitment gave me the ability to barter with God and submission meant surrendering everything I had to trade. Fortunately for me, God is all about changing the reasons for why we do what we do.
In 2008, I opened my front door early one morning to find a bounty hunter with a gun waiting for me. It was analogous to the kind of shock I was experiencing in all aspects of my life at the time. My wife and I had moved into a pretty rough inner city neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee, and the previous tenant at our house was a wanted man. We were in Memphis because, despite my plans, God had made it clear that I was to go to dental school and the only school in the state was in Memphis. We were living in one of the more dangerous areas of a city known for violent crime because God had again opened doors I had tried to close, and He clearly said to submit. God seemed to be in the process of breaking my pride and taking me beyond my comfort zone in order to force me to surrender areas of my life I’d refused to yield.
Reading missionary biographies can be a very dangerous thing for your life. One of my favorite writers and a radical disciple of Christ was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In The Cost of Discipleship, he summarizes Luke 14 by saying, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” When I first read those words, they reverberated with me because they called for a surrender and an abandon I’d never considered. I began to read verses like Luke 14:33 where Jesus says, “In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple,” and I started to think He might mean exactly what He says. God revealing His plans to us can be a scary thing because it requires practical applications of hard truth in our lives or else the hardening of our hearts to that same truth.
I’m now a practicing dentist working for a Christian health clinic located in the same neighborhood I’ve lived in for the last four years in Memphis. It’s a clinic focused on providing care for the underserved, the poor and the marginalized. My wife runs a guest house for students who do rotations at the clinic. We had both planned on working overseas by now and we’d definitely never planned on working in the healthcare field or in inner city Memphis. The ironic thing is that we love where we are and what God’s allowing us to be a part of so much more than we ever thought possible. I think that’s what God has been teaching me. That He demands utter submission when we want to offer commitment. That God uses us despite our intentions. That His plan is absolutely counter to the medical mindset we’ve been taught to accept, where people who want to understand and control every step of the plan are brought to their knees. That His way is infinitely better when we simply surrender our plans and accept that being a disciple will mean giving up things we want to hold onto. That He wants to be the unqualified “why” in what we do.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
John David Williamson, MD, lives and works in inner city Memphis, Tennessee, with his wife and newborn son. After finishing Family Medicine residency in Charleston, South Carolina, he moved to Memphis to join Christ Community Health Services, an organization committed to providing excellent healthcare in the name of Jesus to the most underserved and marginalized populations of Memphis as well as the unreached world. John David is the lead physician at the Orange Mound Health Center which is among the six health centers, three dental clinics and two pharmacies operated by CCHS. He has also been appointed the director of the newly formed Christ Community Underserved and International Medicine track within the University of Tennessee Family Medicine Residency program which matched its first four residents this year.
Jon Hall, DDS, and his wife Stacy live in the inner city neighborhood of Binghamton in Memphis, Tennessee. Jon graduated from the University of Tennessee College of Dentistry in 2010, and works as a dentist with Christ Community Health Services in the neighborhood where he has lived for the past four years. Stacy manages a guest house where medical students live while doing rotations with CCHS in Memphis. Their first child was born in October.