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30 January, 2024

Root Canal at the River Center

Root Canal at the River Center

Today's post tells the story of how one church's mission to reach their local community led to weekly root canal surgery being carried out from their building! Scroll down to watch a short interview with Warren Stroup and Lynn Koehn.


Mercy ministries hadn’t always been at the heart of the River Center, Oregon, but captured afresh by John’s instruction to be 'in the world', but not 'of the world' the church community became convinced that they needed to increasingly immerse themselves in the lives of the people around them.

"We realised we were not in the world. We were separated from the world. That commission to get into our community became the heartbeat of our leadership team as well as our entire church.”  Warren Stroup (the River Center, Oregon)

In response, the church committed to employing a pastor whose role would be to explore how the church could serve the community more meaningfully.

Once on staff, Lynn Koehn approached City Hall with a risky question: What could the church do to help?

1. Ask people in positions of responsibility – how could we help?

Lynn Koehn remembers how as he asked that question at the front desk, six heads poked out of the doorways behind, keen to chat. This immediate and enthusiastic response from City Hall staff, set in motion a series of community projects that aimed to make a positive impact on the town.

From cleaning up parks to adopting a public school, the church's efforts extended to running a food bank, clothing distribution, and a toy program.

While others oversaw the logistics of the local food bank, Lynn was freed up to have conversations and build relationships with those visiting each week. Once trust was established he was able to ask this same question again, but this time to people with lived experience of poverty.

2. Ask people with lived experience of poverty – how could we help?

Down to a man, each person he spoke to replied that the gap in services that had the greatest impact on their day to day life was the lack of access to dental care.

It emerged in these conversations that many, particularly of the older generation, were living with daily pain which could not be effectively treated or resolved (due to the US Medicare scheme failing to supply dental coverage).

Lynn remembers:

“This really touched my heart, and affected me in a dramatic way. And so I said in my heart, I said, okay, we're going to do something about that. This can't just go on.”

Oral healthcare wasn’t the response he had expected, but it was a real answer to a risky question! The challenge was, how could the church respond to this need?

Lynn, who has no medical background himself, set about pursuing conversations with medical professionals used to encountering patients every day with similar unmet need. Doctors and nurses shared their frustrations at how constrained by the system they were, often sending people home from the Emergency Room with Tylenol or aspirin but unable to offer more.

Forming a committee comprised of Lynn, a nurse, a retired dentist, and a board member affiliated with the local hospitals, the church community began exploring ways to address the dental healthcare gap. Drawing inspiration from similar projects in other counties, the committee gradually expanded, securing their first funding of $10,000 to get a clinic off the ground.

What started as a small initiative focussed on prevention, and oral hygiene, has grown into a vital service that now operates two full days a week within the church building. People in need can schedule appointments for cleaning and hygiene care, while a hired dentist attends every Wednesday to perform full-blown root canals. The service has offered hope and relief for those who previously had limited access to dental care.

The approach taken by Lynn and the church emphasised listening to the community's needs rather than assuming solutions.

Lead pastor, Warren Stroup:

“Oftentimes we can say, “Hey, let's do this. It'll help our community.” I think that's the wrong way to approach it. Better to go into the community and ask, “how can we best help?”. We often don’t do that, because we don’t know what they’re going to say!"

That's how we've gone from the very beginning of, of those older people saying, “Hey, I have this need” to now having a full-blown medical service within our church where people come and get dental care twice a week.”

The dental clinic not only serves the community directly but has also significantly eased pressure on the local hospital. By redirecting patients to The River Center for dental care, the hospital saves significant resources previously spent on emergency care that they couldn't fully provide.

The River Center, Oregon couldn’t have anticipated that the provision of root canal from their church building would meet a core unmet need among deprived communities around them. Their first tentative steps began by asking questions to those in power, immersing themselves in the lives of others, and, crucially, listening to the voices of people with lived experience of poverty in their community.

A message from Jubilee+

The River Center, Oregon recently became one of the first Jubilee+ partner churches in the US. Their experience, albeit navigating a different healthcare model shows how churches can effectively step in to fill healthcare gaps.

Charities and churches in the UK aren’t far behind. In the coming weeks we’ll hear from Growing Hope, a charity which partners with local churches to set up clinics offering free therapy to children sitting on NHS waiting lists. Likewise Redeeming Our Communities is pioneering a project creating hubs in Wythenshawe, Manchester to provide an alternative to A&E for people experiencing mental health issues. 

While daunting, the current pressures on the public sector also present opportunities for churches, charities and Christian professionals to stand in the gap. As we’ll read next month from Growing Hope, professional healthcare support can be matched with authentic gospel witness.

30 January, 2024

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