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By Tom Holmes
When Dr. Bob Stannard received his medical degree from Loyola University's Stritch School of Medicine in 1984, working and living east of Austin Boulevard was not on his radar screen. His whole life to that point had been, literally and figuratively, lived west of that boundary line.
Raised in both the Oak Park and River Forest area, he was told as a boy to exit the Eisenhower Expressway at Harlem instead of at Austin and not to take the el down to the Loop. Bad things happened in the Austin neighborhood. He remained west of the boulevard for his medical training at Loyola and for his residency at West Suburban Medical Center. Even his undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire was earned, culturally speaking, "west of the boulevard."
Several things, however, happened to direct his vision east toward Chicago's Austin Neighborhood. The first, he said, was that he became a committed Christian, which made him take seriously the notion that what God wanted him to do was more important than what he wanted.
The second was that during his residency he encountered a group called the Christian Community Health Fellowship (CCHF) whose mission, according to the organization's website, is "to educate, encourage and equip Christians to live out the gospel through health care among the poor."
At a CCHF meeting held in Chicago, Stannard met John Perkins who founded the Voice of Calvary Ministries in 1962 in Mendenhall, Miss. Voice of Calvary was a community health center that seemed to incarnate the principles of CCHF for the young doctor. Perkins' philosophy, according to Stannard, was based on three Rs: Reconciliation, Redistribution, Relocation.
Perkins taught that in order to do effective health care ministry among poor African Americans, the work had to include reconciliation between the races, redistribution of resources from the rich to the poor and the relocation of those who were attempting to do ministry to live in the same community with those to whom they were ministering.
Inspired and energized by Perkins' vision, Stannard began searching for an organization which embodied the three Rs. He found what he was looking for in Circle Family Health Care Network (CFHN), started working there as a family practice physician in 1987, bought a house in the Austin neighborhood, and has been with the health center ever since.
Another reason the young physician joined CFHN was a meeting he had with Dr. Jon Beran and Beran's wife Nita, who is a nurse. The more Stannard heard the couple describe their vision for Circle, the more he was impressed with not only how the organization was structured but also with people like the Berans who staffed CFHN.
Nita and Jon Beran have been with Circle from its beginning in 1977. At that time they were members of Circle Evangelical Free Church, which was meeting in the Truck Drivers Union Hall, right across the Eisenhower Expressway from the University of Illinois, then referred to as the Circle Campus.
"Circle Church was organized into mission groups or fellowship groups," said Nita, "and there was a big emphasis on encouraging people to use their gifts in the kingdom [of God]."
The group to which the Berans belonged was composed mostly of medical professionals who, when they sought to integrate their religious faith with their training, began exploring the possibility of opening a health clinic in the under-served area surrounding the Circle Campus. Searching for models of what they envisioned as a faith-based health clinic, they discovered John Perkins' Voice of Calvary 10 years before their future colleague, Dr. Stannard, would be inspired by him. The group tried to shape their new ministry as closely as they could to what they saw in Perkins' pioneering effort in Mississippi.
"Our early naïve thought," recalled Jon Beran, "was that if we just opened the doors, we would make enough from the paying clients to cover the costs of the non-paying people."
"I think we jumped in," Nita Beran added, "without knowing exactly what the clinic would look like. We didn't think there would be as much financial difficulty as there has been. Over the years we've tended to get used to living on the edge financially, but that doesn't make it any easier."
"Public aid has always been a poor payer," Jon explained. "We had a significant number of self-pay patients who couldn't afford the standard rate, plus we weren't a big mill churning out a large number of patients. We were trying to provide 'caring care.' Patients would come to us expecting not just physical care but spiritual input as well. That takes time."
When Tom Huggett graduated from the University of Wisconsin Medical School, he knew he wanted to be a primary family care doctor and at the same time be involved with community health. He followed up his medical training with a three-year Peace Corps commitment in Malawi in Africa as a district health officer and the earning of a master's degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University.
He joined the staff at Circle, because CFHN offered the mix he was looking for and because he was attracted to the incorporation of spirituality in the care.
"What sealed it," Huggett said, "was when we met over here [the Berans' brick bungalow in the 5800 block of West Huron] and I saw the commitment there was with J.B. and the rest of the folks."
"I knew from my short time in Malawi," he continued, "how much you could learn by living in the community where you are working and getting to know people from different angles than just as your patients. I could see that at Circle."
When asked if they ever prayed with patients, all four nodded yes. "One of my patients," said Stannard, "was very unstable after undergoing multiple stinting in the cath lab at West Suburban. One of the stints had dissected her coronary artery. As we waited for the cardiologist to get back into the cath lab, we went through Psalm 91 as she was sitting there: "You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, 'My refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust …" Her life was unstable and she knew it.
"We just kept praying through that psalm as we were going down to the cath lab. I let her go into the cath lab, and I stood on the other side of the wall and laid my hands on that wall and prayed that God would do a miracle."
It's not that Stannard or the other doctors at Circle pray with every patient who comes in for a checkup. But they view their practice as a ministry, whether they use religious language or not. Stannard articulated it this way: "The sense of being able to be used by God brings an incredible sense of joy."
Huggett recently visited a man on his rounds who was Dr. Stannard's patient and had undergone quadruple bypass surgery. "He told me he was so grateful that Bob had taken the time to talk with him about deep spiritual issues." The 69-year-old patient told him, "I'm dealing with my own mortality, I guess."
This trio of three white doctors have been working and living with their families east of Austin Blvd. for a combined total of 73 years. Since the decision of all three to invest themselves in the inner city was influenced by John Perkins' vision for how to do effective ministry in a poor, black community, it seemed fair to ask them how reconciliation, redistribution and relocation has gone.
Nita Beran answered the question about reconciliation by telling a story. At the recent wedding of Bob's son, ushers asked if guests entering the church were friends of the bride or of the groom and seated them accordingly. After the service, one of Nita's friends remarked, "Did you notice that the bride's side was all one race but that the groom's side was mixed, black and white?"
"It's a privilege and something that's pretty rare," Nita declared, "to have true cross-cultural experiences in life. I feel like God has given us that in this neighborhood through our church and work."
Jon Beran talked about a form of reconciliation that goes beyond racial differences to our basic human condition. He said the approach taken by the staff at Circle is to care for the whole person and that takes time, but the time invested often results in strong doctor-patient relationships.
Huggett said that being with patients over the span of many years has allowed him to get to know them well and vice versa. He has been invited to weddings and graduations and even to deliver a eulogy at one patient's funeral.
"It's kind of like a family thing," he said. "That's one of the things I was looking for when I decided to be a family doc. It's the kind of thing that makes me a better person."
"There's a tendency for life to drag you down and dissipate your fires," said Jon Beran. "The fires have to be re-stoked periodically, and for me that happens partly through patients who either thank me or teach me by their own lives. You see a strength in them that you want to emulate.
"Medicine gives you sudden intimacies because you're thrust into or allowed into deeper parts of patients' lives. That's why I'm here. That's the whole reason I'm doing what I'm doing."
Huggett, Stannard and the two Berans didn't talk much about the politics of social justice. It was as if their decision to apply the privileges they had enjoyed in their formative years to a poor part of the city was their way of trying to even out the economic playing field.
Huggett is guardedly hopeful about health care reform. "We try to scrape by and cobble together things for many of our patients who are without insurance," he said. "If there's a way to get some of the testing that we're not able to arrange or to obtain some of the medications our patients need, then that is a good thing and society should be for it. If there's some support like this, that will help, but we've been working without it for a long time."
Being involved in people's lives over a long period of time makes them more effective as helpers. "Specialists," Huggett said, "only know the person as a patient lying in the bed. We know what they look like when they're walking down the street or in the grocery store or in our office. Therefore, we can advocate better for what they need because people living on one side of the boulevard have a lot of misconceptions about the people living on the other side."
Nita Beran added that at first she thought living in Austin would make the people they serve appreciate them more — until she realized most of their patients don't know where they live. "They might assume we live in Oak Brook," she said. "I've come to realize that the purpose of relocating is as much for God to be working changes in my understanding. Relocation is a good thing because it helps communication and understanding across the board."
All four acknowledged that living in a high-crime area has had an impact on them. "We've seen the good, the bad and the ugly," said Stannard. "My family and I have been victims of crimes although relatively minor: car vandalism and car theft, attempted home invasions, defacement of property as well as harassment by police [repeated stops and search of her vehicle while driving through the neighborhood]. My son has been harassed more while walking home from the el."
"Once I was punched in the head outside of Duke Ellington School as I was walking from my house to the clinic," said Huggett. "Just a kid showing off, I think. Soon after I moved in, my house was broken into and my laptop computer and other household items were stolen. My garage has been broken into several times, and I guess someone else needed the old push lawnmower and three bikes more than I did."
The four were aware what they were getting into when they moved into a community with a higher crime rate. What was most discouraging were the times the very people they were caring for turned against them.
"I came to this community with a lot of idealism," said Stannard. "When the people we minister to turn and degrade us and even take us to court for malpractice, those are the harder times. I've tried hard not to lose that idealism and to not let the things that can drag us down get us off our calling as we've received it."
"Certainly there have been ups and bumps," he concluded, "but the difficulties all four of us have had are nothing compared with knowing that through it all, we have been doing what I believe God has called us to do and so we stay the course."
"We look back and know that God has provided in different ways," said Nita Beran, "sometimes things we didn't really expect."