Cindy Bishop loved serving as a missionary nurse in Mexico, but her aging parents needed her close. So she moved back to south Texas and took a job in home health care.
When that proved unsatisfying, Bishop began studying help wanted ads. One day she circled a headline for “Wesley Nurse.”
“I was like, ʻOK, I don’t know what that is but it has something to do with the Methodist Church, so how bad can it be,’” she recalled.
That was in 2008, and Bishop has been a Wesley Nurse ever since, doing public health outreach to the uninsured and others in need from her base at First United Methodist Church in Edinburg, Texas.
“This is my missionary work for now, and I see it very much as a ministry,” she said. “Yes, it’s a nice job, but it’s way more than a job.”
Bishop is one of 88 Wesley Nurses — all registered nurses — who work for Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas. They carry the name of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, and his emphasis on health and caring for the poor, including spiritually. All services they provide are free.
Wesley Nurses operate out of United Methodist churches across the 74-county Rio Texas Conference, doing health education, screenings, advocacy and referrals, but also praying with those they serve.
The program is in its 20th year, with plans to expand next year to 100 nurses. Already it’s one of the largest initiatives in the growing faith community nursing movement.
“Other networks would like to be more like Wesley Nurses,” said Sharon Hinton, national project manager for the Westberg Institute for Faith Community Nursing, in Memphis, Tennessee. “It’s a model that could be used across the nation.”
Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas has been partners with Hospital Corporation of America since 1995. It retains one-half ownership of Methodist Healthcare System, the largest health care provider in the San Antonio area.
Under the motto “serving humanity to honor God,” Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas operates two primary care clinics, school-based health centers and a range of other public health efforts, often in partnership with fellow nonprofits.
The Wesley Nurse program is its largest geographic outreach. In 2016, the nurses recorded 64,657 patient encounters, but a much higher number under a category called community outreach.
“Wesley nurses are able to use their skills as registered nurses to think about health outside the walls of a hospital or clinic,” said Jennifer Knoulton, vice president of regional operations at Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas. “They are called to be health advocates for the underserved, and work to transform health in their community.”
In Bishop’s case, that’s Edinburg and the surrounding Rio Grande Valley, simply known as “the Valley” here. Located on the Texas-Mexico border, it’s a complicated mix of Anglo and Hispanic cultures, with some wealth and plenty of poverty.
Bishop grew up here and at age 8, in a Presbyterian church, had a life-changing encounter.
“I heard two missionaries speak and God planted in my heart the dream to be a missionary nurse,” she said. “I never questioned it.”
Bishop would go on to become a registered nurse, attend seminary and serve with mission organizations in Ecuador and Mexico. As a Wesley Nurse in the Valley, she’s a triple threat: fluent in Spanish, a native of the area and one who’s lived in Mexico, where so many Valley residents have immigrated from.
“She’s got the understanding of what their issues are that most of us don’t,” said Judy McLelland, who chairs the health committee at First United Methodist of Edinburg.
Bishop has her own space in the small church office annex. She’s just down the hall from Robert Chapa, a Methodist Healthcare Ministries community counselor with whom she sometimes collaborates in providing care.
At the church, Bishop sometimes does blood pressure checks and other basic medical procedures. But Wesley Nurses are not, in the main, clinicians. They’re more about education, advocacy and working with partners to leverage access for health care.
So, much of the week, Bishop is driving all over the Valley. She might be attending a health fair or a local clinic board meeting, or accompanying the clinic’s mobile van. She might be lobbying for an anti-smoking ordinance in restaurants — something that’s been adopted by various Valley municipalities during her Wesley Nurse years.
For sure, she’ll be teaching, and a recent morning found her at the community center of a “colonia” (an unincorporated settlement of Mexican-Americans) leading a nutrition class in Spanish.
“Diabetes, obesity and hypertension are the three biggest issues here,” Bishop said of the Valley.
With the assembled women of the colonia, she used humor, visual displays and finally a game of nutrition education bingo — giving out measuring cups and spoons out as awards.
“That’ll help them with the right portions,” she said.
Later that day, Bishop checked in with the food pantry underway at First United Methodist in Edinburg, and then settled into her office for a follow-up meeting with Patricia Pesina.
Bishop had met Pesina while teaching a class in Hargill, Texas, just north of Edinburg. Pesina’s teeth were obviously rotted. Bishop went to work to get her dental help.
That first meant a visit to a community clinic, which said Pesina’s problems were beyond what it could handle. Bishop next checked with a private practice dentist, who said the same. But he suggested she check with Dentists Who Care, a local group that does charity work.
Bishop followed up, learning children were that group’s focus. But she had gone to the same high school as one of the dentists (“Hey, you’re a Bobcat too!” she recalled saying) and that connection helped lead to free care for Pesina.
Pesina is in the process of getting fitted for state-of-the-art dentures. Bishop has kept tabs on her progress, and has written thank-you notes to the dentists involved.
At the church, Bishop checked Pesina’s weight and blood pressure, talked with her about food choices and limiting salt intake, and prayed with her.
And they celebrated the prospect of new dentures.
“Mas guapa por mi esposo,” Pesina said with a big laugh. Meaning she’ll be prettier for her husband.
Describing her work with Pesina, which has gone on for about a year, Bishop said simply, “That’s what lights my fire.”
The Rev. Michelle Vernone is in her first year as pastor at First United Methodist in Edinburg, and still getting to know the Valley and Bishop’s ministry there. But Vernone has worked with Wesley Nurses in past appointments.
She sees Bishop and the others as a true godsend.
“When you’re in a church that has a Wesley Nurse, you’re dialed in more purposefully to specific needs,” Vernone said. “If it were financially possible, every church should have one.”
Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].