Naming the Unnamed: the Important Work of Dr. Lori Baker

Last week, I spent some time at Baylor University in Waco, TX. I admit, Mary and I went with great curiosity about seeing Magnolia Farms, the home of Chip and Joanna Gaines from the HGTV home-remodeling show Fixer Upper. Who would have believed that Fixer Upper-fever had over taken the town? Each month an estimated 33,000 tourists travel to Waco just to gawk at what the Gaines have created.

That was our first stop, but after that we spent time with Baylor students who are very interested in the link between faith and health. Their energy was so invigorating, and hopefully we’ll see some of them come to Memphis and work with us as Church Health Scholars during their a gap year between college and medical school.

What I was not expecting was to meet Dr. Lori Baker, a forensic pathologist based at Baylor. It turns out she has a PhD in anthropology from the University of Tennessee and spent seven years in Memphis. What she has followed as her life’s work is both inspiring and gut-wrenching.

Dr. Baker works to identify bodies that have died in areas of genocide or on the US/Mexican border. She then returns the bodies to their families. She has worked in Serbia and Honduras, but she mostly works in Texas.

Every year, 500 people die trying to come to America. Before the 1990s, our country did not even keep a record of the deaths of these unknown people. On the Texas border, people pay a “coyote” to help them cross the desert, and once across and into Texas, they’re told that Houston is “just a 30-minute walk away.” They are led into barren lands that are mostly privately owned ranches hundreds of square miles in size. There is no water, so the irony of calling these people “wet backs” is disturbing. They will die of dehydration. Most bodies are found about 70 miles from the border, often in the fall during hunting season. They are buried on the spot or in cemeteries with unmarked graves.

Dr. Baker, with a small group of students and volunteers, works to identify the people who never realized their American dream. She then tries to return the bodies to their families. It is heart-wrenching work, but surely the work of the Lord.

She is one of the only forensic pathologists in America trying to identify these tragic souls.

Two weeks ago, I saw a young man barely out of his teens from Honduras. While crossing the border into the US, he became dehydrated. He was admitted to a border hospital and told he had damaged his kidneys and that he would need dialysis. He then came to Memphis where he had family. Thankfully, he is young and his kidneys had recovered by the time I saw him. But he came within a hair’s breadth of being someone who met Lori in the desert.

When I last saw him, he was smiling, ready to go to work building houses with his uncle. But I can’t help but wonder what his smile masks. Did he see people along the way who Lori will examine later this year? Did he know where they came from? Did he know their mamas?

My talks with Lori educated me on a facet of immigrant life that I never considered, but I cannot get out of my head the profound sadness of it all. She gets regular hate mail for doing what she does.

The line between life and death is so very thin. My troubles seem of little consequence when I think of all those who set out on such a perilous journey. I don’t know if I will see Lori ever again, but I do know I will not talk to a recent immigrant to Memphis from the South without thinking about what could have been.

Let’s Talk About the C Word

The C-Word postI have just returned from the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

No, I did not meet Bernie or Hillary. In fact, my agenda had absolutely nothing to do with politics. (Thank God).

But I did have an agenda: to promote the idea that it’s time to rethink cancer.

I was in Philadelphia earlier this week to speak on a panel after a screening of a new documentary film called “The C Word“. The Church Health Center is featured prominently in the movie, which will be in theaters this fall and on Netflix in the spring. It is narrated by Morgan Freeman and produced and directed by the Academy Award-nominated director Meghan O’Hara.

You can watch the trailer here:

The movie is about how cancer can be prevented through improved eating habits, exercise, and stress reduction. Does that sound familiar? It should; the Church Health Center has been preaching prevention for nearly 30 years. The movie centers around a French physician, Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, who developed brain cancer then aggressively began treating himself with the basics of good nutrition, exercise and stress reduction. He then wrote a popular book titled Anticancer: A New Way of Life. He doesn’t advocate a fad diet or his own special treatment plan.

The movie also uncovers ways our lifestyles contribute to the cancer epidemic in the US. But what’s disturbing is that even if we vigilantly do everything we can to avoid cancer, the deck is often stacked against us. Did you know that tobacco companies now own all the major food distributors in America? Or that when a food label uses the term “fragrance” as an ingredient, there is a list of carcinogens that can be included in that term? The movie reveals a great deal of similar information and is extremely thought-provoking.

A portion of the documentary includes several interviews with me, but I am proudest of the Jones family that the movie tracks over a year. Several members of the family lost significant weight by attending our Wellness center and working with our health coaches. They are the real stars of the film.

My hotel in Philadelphia was located downtown near Independence Hall. Staying there reminded me of Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Franklin wrote that after returning to Philadelphia from Boston in 1735. Impressed with Boston’s fire prevention programs, he sent an anonymous letter to the Philadelphia Gazette with suggestions for how fire prevention could be enhanced in the city. It included avoiding “carrying live coals in a full shovel out of one room to another.” His commonsense suggestions led to licensing chimney sweeps and requiring homeowners to have leather buckets in which to carry coal.

Of course, common sense only seems so in hindsight. It takes an incredible amount of work to make real headway in the way we rethink health and then push for effective implementation of that new way of thinking.

Franklin’s suggestions about fire prevention have parallels in today’s healthcare landscape where we’re constantly talking about prevention of chronic health issues like cancer. It’s my hope that the lessons of The C Word will be heeded.

Disarming Fear

I was watching the Olympic trials last night when the local news broke in showing people blocking the bridge over the Mississippi River. A Black Lives Matter rally had turned into an act of civil disobedience of blocking traffic on I-40. It was remarkable to see this happening in my own city of Memphis.

I grew up in Atlanta during the Civil Rights Movement. I remember seeing people in Birmingham being swept away with fire hoses as I watched on TV. I was 14 and in the 8th grade when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis. All of that seemed a long way away, and I was too young to be involved. This time, though, I was watching things happen in the city I love, and I am more than old enough to be involved.

But how? What am I to do?

That is exactly the problem, isn’t it? Much of the time, we don’t know what to do, or at least we claim we don’t. Everyone on all sides feels helpless. No one wants innocent people to be shot by the police, and no one wants the police to be shot while doing their job. We all believe that the police should go about doing their job of protecting all citizens, no matter their race. I believe we all want that, so what is the problem?

The problem, as I see it, is that we are unequal in our society based on perceived differences generated by class and race. None of us can fully know what someone unlike us feels or believes because our experiences are very different. That leads to fear, the progenitor of evil.

Fear drives us apart. Fear makes us see the other as a threat. Fear makes our heart pound and want to reach for the trigger of a gun. Fear makes me cross the street when I see someone who doesn’t look like me walking toward me. Fear is the enemy we must repel.

The power of fear is why, I believe, the overwhelming message of the Gospel is “Be not afraid.” This is what the angels say at Jesus’s birth and what Jesus himself utters to those who follow him. The fact that we have not heard the message leads us to the divisiveness we are enduring.

Eliminating fear is not so easy. It helps, though, to follow Abraham Lincoln’s advice: “I don’t like that man. I need to get to know him better.”

Jesus ultimately calls us to love our neighbor. There’s a process in that, and I think it might just start with getting to know our neighbor’s name.

In my city of Memphis, I will offer a kind word to strangers, especially those who look different from me. It is at least a place to start.

Thoughts On Brexit

I spent a year going to school in London. At the University of London, I was surrounded by people from all over Europe and the world. The amazing diversity of London has always been one of its best assets, and I can’t reconcile my memory of London as a place of unity and diversity with the reality that is Brexit.

Turning in seems to be the majority sentiment for a county that once ruled much of the world. I am in no position to judge the British on how they rule themselves, but I am confident that focusing only on one’s own self-interest is never a good plan. Any time decisions are made based on how one party – whether that be a person, a group, or even an entire country – can get more for itself, the result is rarely a strategy that works well in the long term.
I believe that finding ways to be generous to neighbors and engaging with people who are different from ourselves has been the most effective business and social strategy for hundreds of years, and I hope that Britain will find a way to avoid isolating themselves while at the same time exercising their autonomy. Obviously, that’s a hard balance to strike.

Like many Americans, I pray that the British exit from the EU does not lead Americans to say we should follow the same path. We live in a complex world and it is critical that we find ways to better engage the rest of the world, not isolate ourselves from it. I am confident that the Christian path is to welcome strangers into our midst and to go into all the world. Anything short of that is not following the path Jesus set before us. Sadly, too many people who claim to follow Jesus would rather we circle the wagons and only share our abundant resources with those who look just like us.

My experience living in London opened my eyes to remarkable people and powerful ways that others around the world live out their lives of faith. None of us are able to love God fully by just following our own understanding of how God created the world. We truly need each other. If America is to be a great nation, we must open our hearts and arms to all who would want to be in relationship to us. It says it on the Statue of Liberty, but Jesus also says it in the Sermon on the Mount.

I pray we will listen closely to God’s desire for us to engage the whole world in acts of love, justice, and joy. Anything other than that is a path that no Christian should be willing to take.

Remembering Harry Peel

Harry Peel was a drummer. He played what John Kilzer sometimes referred to as a ”big bongo.” I loved to listen to his playing, but I was also one of his doctors.

I have to be honest: Harry was a terrible patient. He would nod along in agreement whenever I told him he needed to improve his lifestyle to better-manage his diabetes and his heart disease, but I knew he was probably not going to do it. He marched to his own beat. After all, he was a drummer.

When John Kilzer started his music-based recovery ministry known as The Way, Harry immediately signed on as the drummer. John called the band “The Harry Peel Orchestra.” It was sort of a joke, but not really.

John and Harry played together for over 30 years. They were like brothers, which was both good and bad. One time when I knew they were not getting along very well, I was talking to Harry about a gig John had played. The  people had not paid John what I thought was reasonable to pay him. Harry indignantly said, “Don’t those people know he is JOHN KILZER?” Harry was true to John even when they were going through a rocky patch.

Because of his diabetes, Harry’s foot had very poor circulation. We tried everything we could to improve the blood flow, including multiple surgeries. Those helped for a while, but then we had to amputate his foot. What could be worse for a drummer?

I would see Harry in the clinic. I could tell he was down but he kept going. The beat kept going.

Then one day he was back playing at the Way. The big bongo was back. It was exciting, and I could tell John was pleased.

Then all too soon Harry didn’t show up for a gig at the Blue Monkey. Who would now keep the rhythm?

Harry died sitting in his chair.

Harry Peel played the drums for almost every successful musician that has played in Memphis over the last 30 years. People didn’t always know his name but they could feel his beat. Harry was a drummer.

I will always remember him playing with John Kilzer. The Way’s band will always be the Harry Peel Orchestra for me. He was never the guy out front, but he proved you can make a difference in life by being the guy who keeps everyone else on track by keeping the beat.

Thank you, Harry, for teaching us that lesson.

The Radical Act of Cultivating Love

When I was in the eighth grade in 1968, I had the only fist fight I have ever had in my life. I started it, but for the life of me I cannot remember why.

It happened after football practice. I was the quarterback of my team. One of my teammates, Ben, had been a Pop Warner All-American football player when he was 12. I guess that put a chip on his shoulder. For some reason he irritated me.

We were both new to the private school we were attending. I don’t know what got into me, but one day we started arguing in the locker room. I thought I was Muhammad Ali and put up my dukes. What was I thinking? I hit Ben in the face. It didn’t seem to phase him. My hand was hurting. Others stepped in and broke it up. That was it.

I immediately felt ashamed, but others who didn’t like Ben started patting me on the back. I was a hero. Of sorts.

Is my middle school altercation in the boys’ locker room an anecdote for how violence begins?  What is it that makes it acceptable? Can we just blame TV and the movies?

I have never known anyone who experienced true, life-shattering violence who was glad for the experience. Violence changes you. It makes you afraid. It makes you angry. It makes you want to build fences, to run away.

Fear sometimes leads to buying a gun. To moving to the suburbs.

I recently was told by a friend that he and his wife are moving to either Northern Ireland or New Zealand because those are the only places they believe they can be safe from ISIS. Violence and fear lead us to doing dramatic things.

But fear of violence cannot rule our lives. While we know that violence is all around us, we also know that there is no where we can truly hide. No place is safe if what you mean by “safety” is the state of being impervious to hurt and pain. Pain is lurking at any moment.

The only way to confront violence is with courage born of love. Violence can bring any of us to our knees, but seeking to experience love no matter where it leads is the only way to live. The New Testament tells us over and over and over to “fear not.” Jesus does not intend this to be simply an inspirational intimation. It’s a mandate. If we’re going to stand for righteousness, love, equality, and nonviolence, we must put our own fears aside and depend on God to guide us.

Saturday’s mass murders in Orlando do not mean that nowhere is safe; it means that all of us need to lead lives born out of love and its accompanying fearlessness every day because we do not know what will happen next. It means that we live in a broken world that needs our light now more than ever, that we must advocate for the oppressed and the hurt. We must stand in solidarity with those in the shadows and denounce violence. We’ve always been called to create the change we want to see in the world, but with acts of dehumanizing murder such as these becoming more and more frequent, that call is even more urgent.

I have not seen Ben in 40 years. If I did see him, I don’t know if he would remember the day that I hurt him, but even if he didn’t, I would tell him I am sorry for fighting with him and hurting him. Knowing that the kind of violence I enacted on him so many years ago is within me scares me, but it makes me focus even more on the need to cultivate love.

A Proud Namesake: The Story of Dr. Menachem Leasy

Sometimes chosen family matters as much or more than the family we are born with. That is certainly true for my wife Mary and our “adopted” son, Menachem Leasy.

Dr. Menachem Leasy

Dr. Menachem Leasy

Menachem was born in Tupelo, Mississippi during the time of the Camp David Accords. These were talks between the USA, Egypt, and Israel that lead to a brokered peace treaty between Israel and Egypt that has lasted for over 35 years. Menachem’s mother was so enamored with the possibility of peace in the Middle East that she decided to name her baby after one of the three national leaders. She was choosing between Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menachem Begin. She chose Begin.

Menachem was a good student who has always worked hard. When he was 11 years old, he got his first job working on the back of a garbage truck. After his shift, he’d head to school.

He played football in high school and was good enough to go on to play fullback at Rhodes College here in Memphis. He wanted to be a doctor and made good enough grades to be accepted, but he just missed being admitted to the University of Tennessee, his first pick. So, he became a clinic assistant at the Church Health Center.

He worked for us 40 hours a week, but had a second job as well. It was on a Sunday afternoon when Mary and I ran into him at his third job that we decided to adopt him with the full blessing of his mother Dorothy.

I worked hard to help him get ready for medical school and to help him along the way once he was admitted. During his senior year, he and I took several trips for him to interview for his residency. I have always hoped that he would be a physician who would care for the poor and eventually come back to work at the Center.

At least the first part of my wish came true.

From the first time Menachem set foot in Manhattan, he fell in love with New York City. He began his residency to be a family physician at Beth Israel Hospital in lower Manhattan. As a Jewish hospital, many Hasidic Jews would pick their doctor from a list that only had the doctors’ names. Naturally they were surprised when their doctor named “Menachem” turned out to be something different than they expected: a young, African American man. Quickly, however, they realized they were in excellent hands.

When he finished his residency, I in no subtle ways began making plans for him to come to work alongside me. Sadly, for Memphis, Dorothy, and Mary and me, the New York bug was too powerful. For the last three years, Menachem has worked at a clinic in Harlem that provides care for the poor. He is everything I hoped he would be, only he is doing it Manhattan.

His mothers and I hope that one day he might again come back to Memphis, and he does not rule that out. For now, we are stuck with twice-a-year visits. Recently he came home to Memphis and I gave him the tour of Crosstown. I am hoping that seeing what is possible there has gotten his wheels turning.

No matter what I know, he is an excellent physician. It is evidenced by the fact that many of his Hasidic patients have followed him to Harlem even though they live on the lower east side, which in New York is a long way to travel to see your doctor.

While peace in the Middle East is still elusive for the world, I have to believe that all three world leaders would be pleased with knowing that a baby born in Mississippi at the time of their work has gone on to do the type of work based on justice that all three hoped for. I am especially sure that Menachem Begin would be proud of his namesake.

Drs. Menachem Leasy and Scott Morris

Drs. Menachem Leasy and Scott Morris