Hurtsboro, Alabama is a typical Black Belt town. It's small - about 500 residents - and poor. The Russell County town's chronically fragile economy worsened a few years ago when two sawmills closed down. The town's only medical clinic also closed, meaning residents must now travel at least 35 miles to either Opelika or Columbus, Ga., to receive medical care. But, a Birmingham-based ministry called A Promise to Help hopes to do just that. The ministry was founded by two ordained ministers - one of them a doctor. Recently, they loaded up a crew of volunteers to bring a dose of faith, charity and medicine to Hurtsboro. Reporter Nathan Turner Jr. went along for the ride.
Reverend Henry Ford and his wife Dr. Sandra Matthews Ford started their ministry 10 years ago focusing on the Black Belt, an economically strained and medically underserved region of Alabama that got its name from the dark soil that once fueled a thriving agricultural industry. Sandra Ford is from the region, Barbour County,specifically. She remembers how as a child she saw an elderly black woman slowly die in a doctor's segregated waiting room for lack of care. She promised that if the Lord would help her become a physician, she would come back to help the region.
"And here we are, a few decades later, after reading a newspaper article entitled the Black Belt: Alabama's Third World and that kind of gave us a direction, focus and strategy for doing a mobile unit," Dr. Ford said.
That focus inspired volunteer Ron Gatrey, who's been going on the monthly mission trips for a couple of years now.
"The whole purpose is to provide health care mentoring to residents. ..Normally I just work all around and set up medical equipment at medical stations and we also have a food ministry I help set up."
They load cars full of medical supplies, food, clothes, and other donations and the convoy starts down I-65. Two and a half hours later they roll up to the Hurtsboro senior citizens center and Henry Ford kicks the clinic into action.
"Hello, Hello... how is everybody, God is Good! Sorry we are running late, but the way we came, the bridge was out...and I had to back the mobile clinic all the way back across the bridge! But we're here. It's always an adventure! I brought you the best doctor in the world... We believe we are going to do some healing... Anybody got a pain or two? Anybody knows Jesus? Okay, we are gonna get started..."
The volunteers -- nursing students, pharmacists, an optometrist -- swiftly set up the clinic and start seeing patients. 61 year old Hurtsboro resident George Jelks is one of the first to enter the mobile medical vehicle to meet with Dr. Ford, who examines him to determine his health and spiritual status.
"Did you take a flu shot, pneumonia vaccine? (Uh-uh) Just want to see what kind of preventive care is available... eye care, immunizations. So, they have not done that even in Phenix City? (uh-uh)"
"Are your needs being met, are you comfortable are you happy?"
"Yes, I am happy; I am married and been married for 10 years..."
"Praise God... do you have a relationship with your savior... (uh-huh) So you know him personally? (yeah) so you are well, spirit body and soul... "
82 year-old Laura Williams is a retired Tuskegee Veterans Administration hospital employee. She has diabetes, and today clinic workers discover her blood glucose level is 331 and her blood pressure is 213/90, both alarmingly high measurements.
"Whoo-eee! If I had not come to the clinic I would not know BP was up... (THE diabetes educator) shocked me to reality and told me to lay off the salt. I've got to do better and I don't think I will miss another clinic."
Hurtsboro Mayor Michael Wells makes an appearance the senior center. He says he's grateful the Fords brought their ministry to town. He says it's been a tough couple of years, but things are looking up.
"The troubles go back to early 80's when tornadoes ripped up the area, businesses shut down and did not reopen.. sawmills closed and did not open up... but we are now in the black and going to start building infrastructure and after getting it cleaned up hope to lure some businesses back to Hurtsboro.
After a day of witnessing, and healing, and fellowship, the Fords close with a prayer and the Army of God prepares to head back to Birmingham. The Fords and their volunteers have their sights set on another distressed Black Belt community next month. They go forth armed with faith, goodwill and a belief in mobile medicine.
~ Nathan Turner Jr., April 30, 2013.
We've got a lot more pictures from Nathan's trip to Hurtsboro on our Facebook Page.