Part one of two

When Dr. Bob Stannard received his medical degree from Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine in 1984, working and living east of Austin Boulevard was not on his radar screen. His whole life to that point had been, literally and figuratively, lived west of that boundary line.

Raised in both the Oak Park and River Forest area, he was told as a boy to exit the Eisenhower Expressway at Harlem instead of at Austin and not to take the el down to the Loop. Bad things happened in the Austin neighborhood. He remained west of the boulevard for his medical training at Loyola and for his residency at West Suburban Medical Center. Even his undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire was earned, culturally speaking, “west of the boulevard.”

Several things, however, happened to direct his vision east toward Chicago’s Austin Neighborhood. The first, he said, was that he became a committed Christian, which made him take seriously the notion that what God wanted him to do was more important than what he wanted.

The second was that during his residency he encountered a group called the Christian Community Health Fellowship (CCHF) whose mission, according to the organization’s website, is “to educate, encourage and equip Christians to live out the gospel through health care among the poor.”

At a CCHF meeting held in Chicago, Stannard met John Perkins who founded the Voice of Calvary Ministries in 1962 in Mendenhall, Miss. Voice of Calvary was a community health center that seemed to incarnate the principles of CCHF for the young doctor. Perkins philosophy, according to Stannard, was based on three Rs: Reconciliation, Redistribution, Relocation.

Perkins taught that in order to do effective health care ministry among poor African Americans, the work had to include reconciliation between the races, redistribution of resources from the rich to the poor and the relocation of those who were attempting to do ministry to live in the same community with those to whom they were ministering.

Inspired and energized by Perkins’ vision, Stannard began searching for an organization which embodied the three Rs. He found what he was looking for in Circle Family Health Care Network (CFHN), started working there as a family practice physician in 1987, bought a house in the Austin neighborhood, and has been with the health center ever since.

Another reason the young physician joined CFHN was a meeting he had with Dr. Jon Beran and Beran’s wife Nita, who is a nurse. The more Stannard heard the couple describe their vision for Circle, the more he was impressed with not only how the organization was structured but also with people like the Berans who staffed CFHN.

Nita and Jon Beran have been with Circle from its beginning in 1977. At that time they were members of Circle Evangelical Free Church, which was meeting in the Truck Drivers Union Hall, right across the Eisenhower Expressway from the University of Illinois, then referred to as the Circle Campus.

“Circle Church was organized into mission groups or fellowship groups,” said Nita, “and there was a big emphasis on encouraging people to use their gifts in the kingdom [of God].”

The group to which the Berans belonged was composed mostly of medical professionals who, when they sought to integrate their religious faith with their training, began exploring the possibility of opening a health clinic in the under-served area surrounding the Circle Campus. Searching for models of what they envisioned as a faith-based health clinic, they discovered John Perkins’ Voice of Calvary 10 years before their future colleague, Dr. Stannard, would be inspired by him. The group tried to shape their new ministry as closely as they could to what they saw in Perkins’ pioneering effort in Mississippi.

“Our early naïve thought,” recalled Jon Berans, “was that if we just opened the doors, we would make enough from the paying clients to cover the costs of the non-paying people.”

“I think we jumped in,” Nita Berans added, “without knowing exactly what the clinic would look like. We didn’t think there would be as much financial difficulty as there has been. Over the years we’ve tended to get used to living on the edge financially, but that doesn’t make it any easier.”

“Public aid has always been a poor payer,” Jon explained. “We had a significant number of self-pay patients who couldn’t afford the standard rate, plus we weren’t a big mill churning out a large number of patients. We were trying to provide ‘caring care.’ Patients would come to us expecting not just physical care but spiritual input as well. That takes time.”

When Tom Huggett graduated from the University of Wisconsin Medical School, he knew he wanted to be a primary family care doctor and at the same time be involved with community health. He followed up his medical training with a three-year Peace Corps commitment in Malawi in Africa as a district health officer and the earning of a master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University.

He joined the staff at Circle, because CFHN offered the mix he was looking for and because he was attracted to the incorporation of spirituality in the care.

“What sealed it,” Huggett said, “was when we met over here [the Berans’ brick bungalow in the 5800 block of West Huron] and I saw the commitment there was with J.B. and the rest of the folks.”

“I knew from my short time in Malawi,” he continued, “how much you could learn by living in the community where you are working and getting to know people from different angles than just as your patients. I could see that at Circle.”

When asked if they ever prayed with patients, all four nodded yes. “One of my patients,” said Stannard, “was very unstable after undergoing multiple stinting in the cath lab at West Suburban. One of the stints had dissected her coronary artery. As we waited for the cardiologist to get back into the cath lab, we went through Psalm 91 as she was sitting there: “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust …” Her life was unstable and she knew it.

“We just kept praying through that psalm as we were going down to the cath lab. I let her go into the cath lab, and I stood on the other side of the wall and laid my hands on that wall and prayed that God would do a miracle.”

It’s not that Stannard or the other doctors at Circle pray with every patient who comes in for a checkup. But they view their practice as a ministry, whether they use religious language or not. Stannard articulated it this way: “The sense of being able to be used by God brings an incredible sense of joy.”