Hospitals and the Rural Community

(An older version of this post first appeared on my Facebook – on March 2, 2021)

The combination of my current reading, my current experiences, and the articles talking about the pandemic impact on rural healthcare is weighing on me today. Rural healthcare systems are already strained and many communities have lost hospitals and specialists. These institutions provide essential care, serve as economic anchors, and serve a source of pride for the communities. However, the Daily Yonder suggests 450 rural hospitals are at risk of closing (200 are high risk). In fact, 19 closed during the pandemic, leaving their communities to travel further or forgo critical and advanced care.

This is not an easy answer post. But I have some thoughts. Groups are asking for rural healthcare aid to be included in the rescue plan working its way through Congress. This, however, may only delay the inevitable. The other thing I hear on occasions is that churches should step up and help financially. What churches? Most rural churches are small, financially strapped (just like hospitals) and often do not have the skills, resources, or leadership to offer help.

As I move through this sense of anxiety, knowing that I have family, friends, and church members traveling hours to hospitals because their local hospital closed, has reduced services, or is understaffed, I know I can’t build a hospital. I also know the answer that a bunch of people will throw (MOVE TO THE CITY) is not and should not be the answer.

However, I do want to think that we can come up with ideas. But the current Christian formation model isn’t preparing churches for that. The Christian formation in most of our rural churches is still otherworldy and pietistic. Thus, I’m doing my work to help shift the formation format so that new futures can emerge. I think the church could lead the way in terms of improving access in communities that have hospitals. Childcare, transport, health education, etc. can be a goal. I can also see the church, if it organizes well, offering some health care through parish/community health nurses, but again finances and goals.

The first thing I can see is churches leaning into what the rural community is already doing, and making it their ministry and mission. I think of providing meals, transportation, watching the kids, and the animals. I also think being able to develop programs to help people modify homes for returning home, receiving at home care, and moving around in the new reality. Things like building the wheelchair ramps, installing grab bars, reworking the furniture for a wheelchair.

I also think using church space to offer care. It may not be emergency or surgical care, but preventative care and acute care (including mental health) could easily be offered in a local church space. The church can and should be able to do this. I think we just need to empower them to see the latent hope around them. The things they already do. And to tie it to the ministry and mission of the church.

I think a good starting point is scripture. The story from Mark 2, of Jesus healing the paralytic is a good start. Capernaum is a rural town in the north of Judea. Four friends are trying to get their paralyzed companion to Jesus, but the crowd is too dense. This doesn’t deter them, they will do anything to help heal their friend. They tear a hole in the roof and lower him down. Jesus sees their faith, and heals the man.

We have this faith. Faith that will do anything to heal the people and our community. We just need to seize it.


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