St. Stephen’s UMC in Houston partnered with its neighboring church, St. James Lutheran and HISD to host the Northwest Community Health Fair. Together, the churches brought together 119 volunteers to serve 700 guests. The effort, senior pastor Rev. Nathan Lonsdale Bledsoe said, was such a success that St. Stephen’s plans to make it an annual event. He hopes other churches in the Texas Annual Conference will consider creating similar health fairs in their own cities.
“We were looking for a way to serve some of the most underserved members of our community,” Pastor Bledsoe said.
He explained that both St. Stephen’s and St. James had been working with HISD. The congregations are equally committed to addressing mental health and suicide prevention at area schools. The emotional and physical health of students and their families is a top priority.
The churches, however, had not yet joined forces to make a difference. They decided to change that – and together, scale up their efforts and create something entirely new.
In the fall, the congregations began planning an event. They enlisted a number of different health care and community organizations to become vendors and set up booths, from Catholic Charities USA, United Way, Boys and Girls Club and Community Health Choice to Avance, Hope and Healing Center and Institute, Texas Children’s and Memorial Hermann. In all, there were 35 agencies present.
A website was also created in English and Spanish to reach the area’s Latino population. St. Stephen’s also had a booth to showcase its ministry for individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
“There was free food, fun and a lot of information,” Bledsoe said.
Mental health and social services were provided. There were booths dedicated to stopping cybe-bullying and taking the census. The free immunizations were so popular that nurses had to go back for refills and stayed a couple of hours late to fill the need.
Guests received passports made for the fair, and vendors had stickers for each visit. When visitors filled the passports with enough stickers, they were able to enter to win door prizes, including Astros tickets, iPads and a bicycle.
Bledsoe witnessed as guests got help on the spot. For example, a student approached the St. Stephen’s booth, where her former high school teacher was working. The student said her aunt neglected her diabetes. Experts at the health fair were able to test her immediately, show that the blood sugar level was problematic and explain management options to her.
“Folks were making appointments and finding out what was available to them,” he added.
Bledsoe explained that the church was able to meet – and show care to — neighbors of all ages, including under-resourced individuals and children. “It was a great way for us to meet our neighbors,” he said.
In fact, he was surprised about attendance. “I thought it would be a success if 200 people came,” he said.
In addition, the church built a relationship with a neighboring church. “This brought us together,” Bledsoe said.
He hopes to inspire other churches to consider hosting a health fair as well. “This is an easy thing for Methodist Churches to do,” he said. “It doesn’t take that many volunteers and that much money – and it’s really affirming of who we are as a congregation. Scripture calls us to go out in the world and love other people.”
That requires opening doors and welcoming the neighbors, the pastor said. It also means loving others and not simply trying to fill the pews inside.
“If the goal of everything we do is to get people into our church, we’re not living our faith, we’re just having a club,” Bledsoe said. “Our faith compels us to love people.”
Health fairs help build healing in the community and fellowship in the church, Bledsoe said. At the same time, he wanted members of his congregation to also consider their physical and mental well-being.
Bledsoe also hoped to break the distinction between who was served and who was serving. “In the city, in the midst of renewal and gentrification, it’s easy for people to develop an us and them mindset for income and culture,” he said. “We wanted to blur that.”
The first step to building health in the community or helping neighbors in anyway, Bledsoe said, is opening your mind and heart to need.
“Ask people for what they actually need and want,” he said. “If you don’t start listening, you’re never going to get anywhere.”
For more information about the event, visit nwcommunityhealthfair.com. Bledsoe maintains a blog at revnayte.com. To learn about St. Stephen’s UMC, visit stshtx.org.