Joseph Honescko, health care, ministry, medical, clinic

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The Local Church Can Meet the Hidden Needs of a Community

In McKinney, Texas, the Parks Church aims to bring health care — and hope — to its residents.

Churches, as both institutions and groups of people, occupy a unique role in any community. That role depends heavily on the needs of the community. A church has the opportunity to identify gaps in a community’s ability to flourish and to adapt its ministry to the needs of its members and neighbors — one of those gaps often being access to health care.

Care for the temporarily and terminally sick has long been a particular focus of service for Christians. According to the Christian History Institute, the church had infrastructure in place to care for the sick as far back as the second century, which proved helpful when plagues spread throughout the Roman Empire in the following years. By the fourth century, churches built public welfare centers for the sick and the poor, setting the foundation for modern hospitals. 

These Christian institutions began as primarily palliative care and grew as they continued to take seriously and practically the commands to love their neighbors as themselves (Mark 12:31), care for the least of these (Matt 25:31-40), and open one’s hands to the poor (Deut 15:7-11). The people of God left an impact on their communities, bringing many to Christ in the process. 

Despite this history, over time, the Western church seems to have outsourced much of its humanitarian work to other institutions. Though many major health-care systems in the United States have religious affiliation, one might get the general sense that many local churches have separated themselves from this sphere of service, leaving conversations around health care to the realm of politics. 

In McKinney, Texas, a little more than 30 miles north of Dallas, a small community of believers has spent the last five years trying to change that in their city. A few pastors, a physician, and an immigration lawyer came together to start Hope Clinic, a free and charitable primary care for their medically underserved neighbors. 

Discovering the Needs of a City

McKinney hardly seems like the kind of place in need of a health clinic. To many, it seems not to have any needs at all. Half-a-million-dollar homes surround the historic downtown district. Farm-to-table restaurants average triple-digit tabs, and boutique stores sell high-end apparel or home decor. Young professionals and families flock to the city, contributing to its massive growth over the decade. It’s the kind of city where you see people in big, fashionable hats walking tiny dogs. Everyone looks beautiful on the square. 

This image, however, is not a complete picture of the city. Travel east from downtown and you’ll discover areas that most of the population neglects. Census data from 2019 shows that over seven percent of the 200,000-plus residents live below the poverty line. Ten percent have no health insurance. A small number live in small tent communities in wooded areas behind the same grocery stores that more affluent citizens frequent. 

Just over 10 years ago, three young pastors — Kyle Redel, Sam DeFord, and Aaron Snell — moved to the area to plant the Parks Church. Redel recalls that the leadership “endeavored to form a community of faith that was very serious about embedding and implanting in a city.” 

This kind of community knowledge was central to the Parks’ church-planting efforts. They took seriously the question posed by many pastors and church leaders in recent years: If your church closed its doors, would anyone in the community care?

Convicted by this idea, the pastors began to search out opportunities to find the felt, but unperceived, needs in the area. “In McKinney, it’s hyper-affluent,” Redel, who also serves as the president of Hope Clinic’s board, says. “Collin County is one of the most affluent counties in Texas. The perceived needs are very low, but we were compelled to do the work of discovering what those needs were.” 

What stood out at the beginning was food insecurity and a lack of housing. The church formed relationships with people in these situations over time, finding small ways to help. But when DeFord met a man named Gary, he began to see a more prominent need. 

Gary lived on the streets of McKinney near DeFord’s home downtown. Attempts to secure Gary housing never panned out because, as he put it, he preferred the outdoors. Periodically, DeFord would check on him, and on one particularly cold night, he found Gary passed out, covered in snow, clearly in need of a doctor. 

DeFord took him to the emergency room, and they transferred him to a local hospital to get an emergency procedure, but the facility offered no follow-up services. There was no solution for Gary’s long-term care, no path for ongoing support. That experience, DeFord says, “made us keenly aware of a pretty big gap and a good amount of people who are not just homeless, but under the poverty line and without access to health care.” 

Redel connects this gap to the limited resources inside the community itself. “There’s a massive lack in Collin County’s health care sphere,” he explains. “We have more than enough hospitals. We don’t have county hospitals like Dallas County or Tarrant County have.” These county health systems, typically within areas where the perceived need is much higher, serve people like Gary who can’t pay for ongoing care. Without an option like that in Collin County, people are left without access to the help they need. 

Community and Faithful Ignorance

The hiddenness of McKinney’s impoverished areas made it hard to build a case for a free health clinic. Even local physician Steve Twyman, who is also the founding medical director and a current board member, did not understand the need at first. Twyman was doing his residency at a large hospital in Fort Worth, a city about an hour from McKinney, where the community’s needs were much more apparent. Looking back, he admits that his own understanding of the city was limited to a certain perspective of people within the Parks Church and the downtown aesthetic. “I think it’s illustrative of how we can get locked into our own spheres of influence and our own fields and lose sight of the bigger picture of things,” he says. Once he saw the uninsured, forgotten patients, he too became an advocate for starting the clinic.

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If your church closed its doors, would anyone in the community care?

For Twyman, these early stages highlighted the church’s power as a community of people. “Part of the reason the church is what it is and why it is effective is because we’re able to come into community with people who have different talents and different skills and work together for the greater good while helping each other see our blindspots.”

The leaders of the Parks also recognized that meeting this need would require a communal effort. While Twyman was ignorant of the city’s needs, the pastors were ignorant of the challenges of working in health care. Redel says, “I think you only get into this area because you’re either one, extremely naive, or two, because the Lord has called you to it.” Those two things often overlapped for him and the others involved at the clinic’s start. 

The naivety turned out to be a blessing, however. Each of these founding advocates of the clinic looks back and says he would not have done it if he knew how difficult it would have been. Instead, their ignorance propelled their faith. Redel says, “We really believed the Lord was calling us to do something, so we were going to just do that next right thing every day.” They didn’t have the full-scale vision of the fully autonomous clinic that exists today back on day one. They just did the next right thing and found the right people to partner with, leaning on the skills and experiences of others.

“Jesus Tricked Me Into It”

A pivotal member of the early team was Caitlyn Twyman — an immigration lawyer, wife to Dr. Twyman, and a long-time friend of the Parks’ pastors. She had spent years studying and working towards the position she had at a law firm when the clinic rolled around, yet she felt a particular call to help the cause. When the Parks leaders asked her to come on board as the executive director, she took some time to think about it and eventually said yes.

Caitlyn hesitates to tell this story because she doesn’t like it when people make her out “to be a saint” for leaving her lawyer job to start a clinic. She recalls the situation differently, saying, “Jesus tricked me into it.” She accepted the position because she thought she could work from home during her pregnancy, research what needed to be done, and file the appropriate paperwork. She never fathomed how big the clinic would become. “It’s one of those things where if the Lord would have told me what he was going to do with [the clinic] I would have never had enough faith to say yes. It was too big and didn’t make any sense, and I didn’t know what I was doing.” 

Now the clinic runs five days a week with a full staff and a team of volunteers to offer primary care to the uninsured patients of Collin County. The clinic has outgrown the Parks Church and includes believers from multiple congregations around the community using their gifts, talents, and resources to bring hope to the hurting. Their goal is to provide holistic services that meet their patients’ physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs, making sure the gospel is apparent and delivered in all they do. For the leaders of the clinic, it is a testimony of what happens when the church responds to a call and becomes a relevant, powerful voice in the public sphere.

This story is from Common Good issue
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