Middletown UMC mobile ministry takes medicine to those in need

August 04, 2023
By Alan Wild

All photos by Cindy Young

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Middletown United Methodist Church is looking for a few good medical providers for its Mobile Medical Ministry.

Actually, more than a few. When it comes to ministering to people in some of Louisville’s most hurting neighborhoods, the more the better.

“The people who come and volunteer with us the first time, they’re hooked,” said Cindy Wyatt, who along with Roni Evans runs the Mobile Medical Ministry – literally, a doctor’s office on wheels.

“There’s so much pain, so much need; so much can hurt,” Evans said. “You just want to help and do whatever you can for these people.”

Middletown’s congregation has enthusiastically embraced the biblical charge to serve as the hands and feet of Jesus, stepping up with financial and material donations as needed for the Mobile Medical Ministry, said the Rev. Nancy Tinnell, a retired deacon who remains on staff at Middletown.

“For me it’s important for us to be a presence in the community that’s not conditional,” she said. “We do not offer barrier-free health care only if you will attach to the church. We just want to meet people in the moment, just as Jesus did.”

The ministry has its origins in a Sunday school class Tinnell was teaching several years ago. They were using a curriculum that called for participants to do ministry in the community. It detailed a partnership between an Arizona United Methodist church and a children’s hospital in which an RV was converted into a mobile clinic to reach homeless children and youth.

Tinnell recalls that a nurse practitioner in her class said afterward, “I would so love to do this.” Then that Sunday night, the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes” aired a segment on a mobile ministry in West Virginia.

They got the message. “This is not a coincidence,” Tinnell recalls thinking.

In 2017, Tinnell wrote and submitted a grant for $55,000 to Good Samaritan Ministries. The grant covered getting a van at cost from a local Chevrolet dealership and refitting the interior with an exam bed, desk, chairs, lighting, heating and air conditioning – “everything we would need,” Wyatt said. The church pays for the upkeep of the van, including gas and insurance.

Middletown – located in an affluent area of eastern Louisville – partners with the Family Community Clinic, a nonprofit based at St. Joseph Catholic Church in  Butchertown, another inner-city neighborhood. The partnership is important, as the Family Clinic provides liability insurance for the mobile ministry health providers.

Tinnell was initially heavily involved in the ministry, including traveling to clinics. These days, Wyatt and Evans coordinate the ministry, helped by a number of volunteers, including their husbands. Both women are now retired, although when the ministry started, they were still working, Wyatt in health care administration and Evans as a registered nurse. Both are members at Middletown.

Their medical backgrounds, as well as their passion for helping the less fortunate, make them the ideal team. Wyatt handles the administrative duties, while Evans coordinates the medical care.

“I feel like the Lord put us together,” Evans said.

Tinnell, who has served at Middletown since 1997, agrees. “Cindy and Roni are absolutely wonderful at running the mobile unit.” 

She added: “We have such dedicated volunteers for this ministry in our church. It’s very much appreciated by our members, the fact that we’re getting out there and providing something so vitally important.”

The mobile ministry volunteers were busy the first couple of years, partnering with “Forgotten Louisville,” a program to help addicts, the homeless, and others in dire need. People could get a meal provided by various churches and could also get medical care. They also served at The Lord’s Kitchen Ministries, another coalition serving the less fortunate.

COVID-19 basically shut down the mobile ministry for two years. Evans and Wyatt were able to continue providing influenza shots at a couple of locations. For various reasons, they no longer take part in Forgotten Louisville or The Lord’s Kitchen.

As the pandemic waned, they gradually again ramped up the mobile ministry. For a time, all they were doing was providing a health clinic once a month at Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church. In November 2022, they connected with Catholic Charities and in March 2023 began visiting the Father Jack Jones Food Pantry.

Those are the two monthly ministries the mobile unit does these days – the second Wednesday at Holy Name Catholic Church for the food pantry, and the fourth Thursday at Fourth Avenue, where the church’s Open Door Ministry provides a free lunch six days a week. Both churches are located in some of Louisville’s most challenged neighborhoods.

The ecumenical aspect of the work is appealing to Middletown. Tinnell said that churches often tend to silo themselves. The Mobile Medical Ministry was intended to be an overarching project that transcended individual churches and denominations.

“When it’s truly ecumenical in spirit, more hands are involved, and more good can be done for the people. It’s not a territorial thing,” she said.

The need is great. At the event at Fourth Avenue on July 27, church member April DuVal recounted the story of Robert, a former client:

Awhile back, he came into the clinic complaining that he didn’t feel well. It turned out he had recently undergone heart surgery and had developed a life-threatening infection. Dr. Neil Farris, a member of Fourth Avenue who was serving as clinic physician that day, quickly realized that Robert was in serious trouble. They called a squad, which rushed him to Jewish Hospital, where he was successfully treated.  

“Every time I think about Robert, I get a little emotional,” DuVal said.

Sadly, Robert’s story ended tragically, as he died of an unrelated issue not long after he was seen at the clinic. But their intercession had given him another chance.

DuVal said it’s amazing how gracious people are when they come to the clinic. “This is the most important work we do,” said DuVal, who has been at Fourth Avenue for 45 years and volunteers regularly. Evans also noted how grateful people are. Volunteers are happy to be there to answer questions and “be a smiling face during a difficult time of their lives.”

The day of the Fourth Avenue clinic – a hot, muggy day, befitting midsummer Louisville weather – Evans was overseeing the setup in “The Parlor,”  a multipurpose room that served as the church’s sanctuary from 1888 to 1902. Stations for blood pressure, weight, glucose screening, physician consultation and more were set up on about half a dozen round tables at the near end of the room. At the far end were more tables holding the giveaways, including reading glasses, toiletries, socks, Bibles – and the very popular packets of greeting cards, complete with postage stamps.

Middletown’s members provide most of the items. The only stipulation is that clients must undergo at least a brief medical check before they get any of the freebies.

Dr. Elizabeth Rouse, who recently retired from family practice, was the physician on duty. Fred Evans, Roni’s husband, was helping, as was Brian Wyatt, Cindy’s husband. (Cindy Wyatt was away on family business and was unable to attend the July clinic.)

They try to have one physician on duty at every clinic, whether at Fourth Avenue or at Father Jack’s. Rouse or Farris – the two physicians regularly volunteering at Fourth Avenue – can administer medicine from the cart and also can write prescriptions.

The Fourth Avenue clinic runs from about 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; that way, they can catch people coming for a take-out lunch from the Open Door Ministry, which operates out of the church’s basement.

They typically see 25-30 people over two hours. Many come from The Healing Place, a nonprofit agency providing treatment for recovering addicts. The men typically walk to the church, but it was too hot this day for them to make the nearly four-mile round trip.

Their first client of the day was a young man who had walked all the way from Shively, at the south end of Louisville – about five miles, one way. Among other things, he was given water and cold compresses on the back of his neck.
Brian Wyatt was working at one of the giveaway tables. Wiping perspiration from his face with a hand towel, he echoed others who said they are in urgent need of medical personnel, especially physicians, physicians’ assistants, and nurse practitioners.

“We’ve stressed, we’ve begged, we’ve pleaded – we need providers,” he said.

Rouse, a member of Louisville’s St. Paul UMC – another church with an active inner-city ministry – said that volunteering at the clinic once or twice a month is great for newly or semiretired physicians.

“It is a great place for us. I just retired about two months ago, although I was working here some before then,” she said, adding that “it’s such a worthwhile thing to do as a retired person because it still makes me feel useful as a doctor.”

Not all the clients need to see a physician. Rouse will typically see 10-12 during the two-hour clinic. Often they just need some reassurance and handholding, she said. 

Denise Maddox, who lives across the street from Fourth Avenue, stopped in to have her weight and blood pressure checked. Maddox, 69, is known at the church as “The Purple Lady” because of her passion for all things purple. She has some leg problems but gets around with the aid of a walker.

“It means a lot. It helps the neighborhood,” she said of the ministry, citing both the medical services and the giveaways.

Out on the sidewalk, the Rev. Jack Steiner was working to steer people into the clinic. Many were there for the free meal.

“We often focus on what Jesus said, but we don’t always focus on what Jesus does,” said Steiner, who has been affiliated with Fourth Avenue since 2007. The church’s focus for years has been to share the love of God in the heart of the city, he said.

Fourth Avenue’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. José Gonzalez, said a majority of the neighborhood is made up of people who live below the poverty level. Many only see a doctor during an emergency, and by then it might be too late.

It’s one more way that Fourth Avenue is becoming a hub for its “neighborhood family,” said Gonzalez, who has been Fourth Avenue’s pastor since July 2021.

Even without The Healing Place group, 22 people came by the clinic. As the mobile ministry crew was packing up, Rouse said the most pressing case she had seen was a man who had strained his arm and was suffering from tendonitis and nerve inflammation. He was given ibuprofen and instructions on how to immobilize and ice the area until it heals. Other people expressed relief when their blood pressure checked out as normal, she said.

“It’s a really nice feeling to be around people who are so appreciative.”

Middletown UMC’s Mobile Medical Ministry would love to be able to serve more people at more locations, but first it needs more volunteers – especially physicians, nurse practitioners, and physicians’ assistants. But anyone – with or without medical training – is more than welcome to help.

Volunteers must commit to one three- or four-hour shift a month. To learn more about how to help, contact Cindy Wyatt at cwyatt59@twc.com or Roni Evans at renatefevans@gmail.com.

See photo gallery of the Middletown Mobile Ministry