Medical Community in Houston's 4th Ward
remembrance by Dave Binns
(now in Rhode Island. Written July 2011)

back to 4th-Ward clinic page

, Junction, Redeemer, Wilson House, 4th Ward Clinic, Ending . . .


When I became older I questioned what was going to be my driving philosophy in life. I knew there was a baseline of attributes I wanted to reach for, consisting of my faith, my strongly developed sense of justice, my desire for peace in the world and harmony among people. From 15 until 19 I became one who had a set of close friends who discussed such topics as where we’d all be in 20 years, would there even be a world, Who or what is God? And does God, if he does exist, have anything at all to do with what we consider the church.

These thoughts were with me as I willingly traveled to my first intentionally religious meeting. Earlier that week my adult friend, and probably the one minister I could most relate to, Keith Scott; asked me if I wanted a religious experience. Growing up in Grace Church meant going to Sunday School, Choir, Youth group and it was all much more social than spiritual. You could say secular, not so much an expression of faith, as a place where “good people” went to be “better people”. So having Keith ask me if I wanted a religious experience was like a whole new idea. And he was low key, but lit a little from the inside, and I knew it was something important to him that I go with him to this meeting in Providence.

I remember walking down a sidewalk along side the State House on a cold windy October night and into Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church. Inside were about 800 people.

Singing really beautiful songs. They seemed to be singing and praying at the same time.

Occasionally they would slide as one into a cacophony of sounds which would crescendo in waves, as if the Spirit of God was passing through the church touching each person. It would quiet down again in a singular orchestration and a person would stand and give testimony of what God seems to be saying. Others would go to the front of the church and share how God made Himself evident in the midst of their difficulties that week.

I almost immediately teared up, I was immediately smitten by the goodness of God.

Well Keith was right, this was a religious experience, and the likes of which I’d never experienced. The meeting went about three hours and I was sorry to see it come to an end. It was a junction in the road, I knew my life would have to be different, I had to be with God. God was no longer compartmentalized in my life, God had to be all. If you were to ask me why at that point I would have simply said that I had to go towards God and stop going away from God. It dawned on me perhaps for the first time that God exists. And if God was a God who cared for the problems of these people in Providence, then he might even care about me. But even that thought was secondary to the evidence, irrefutable in front of me, right here, that indeed God is here with us. I can feel His presence in this room; and I’ve never felt this good in my life.

All would change. My life was to be at Gods service. Whatever I did in life would be a dismal failure unless I followed as best I could, God. No-one put these thoughts in my head, I came to this in a few seconds of being in the presence of that worshipping community.

Within the week I was visiting friends at a house in Central Falls with Bob Robinson and Frank Fernandes. The girl whose house we were at was a girl friend of my brothers before he went into the Air Force and a little older than I, she had a girl friend and her boy friend recently released from the Navy. It was a fun custom in this household of ten kids to occasionally hold hands around a table and call “Mr. Pigeon” back to life; an exercise that started after “Mr Pigeon” appeared to certain members of the family in dreams. They’d learned that Mr. Pigeon was at one time the Mayor of Central Falls; known at that time as the most densely populated square mile in the state of RI with about 100 or more liquor licenses. Yes it was “discovered” that Mr. P was a bit of a drunk, and he drank himself to death in this very house. When he appeared in one child’s dream he seemed to tell the child that there would be something buried in the dirt floor basement under the stairs. Naturally the kids excavated and found a still for making liquor. (I know it seems that with 100 liquor licenses in a square mile outside your door…but this was during prohibition and people did do such things as home brewed)

The kids in the house got use to the idea, and would once in a while walk into a cold room and know he was there. Doors would close by themselves, other evidence would present itself and it was generally accepted that Mr. P was part of the family.

I had second thoughts about this new game, and asked if Pat had a bible, which being a good catholic family she did. I quickly explained to the crowd that my life had changed and I was now following God and I wasn’t sure this was what I should be doing. So I blindly opened the Bible to an Old testament verse which said in effect “And David led the people away from idol worship and into repentance” Hmmm… I decided not to place undue reliance on those words but as a compromise I’d ask if the Bible could be put in the center of the table while we made the call to Mr. Pigeon. Within a minute you would think that someone learned how to put the essence of misery and self loathing into a cold steam. We were immediately in the presence of not only Mr. Pigeon but his friend and gardener, there was no need to explain anything to anyone, we all had it in front of us. A presence we all knew as Mr. Pigeon rested into Bob and Bob became from his facial features Mr. Pigeon. I suddenly knew that Mr. P needed to know that he could go to God, that God was a forgiving God. That a repentant heart was all one needed to be where one belonged, With God, even now. I spoke to (Bob as ”Mr Pigeon”) and he/they laughed at me and said half laughing you are foolish. There is nothing after death but misery and regret. Mr. Pigeon himself was the evidence of this, the Bible, the Church, God … all a story, all made up to make us feel better.

As we broke hands, because even Pat was freaked out, nothing like this had ever happened, it’ had all been somewhat light-hearted up until now. This was awful, really awful.

The sailor picked up the bible and threw it on the floor across the room; Frank and Bob were sad, really sad … I don’t even know how to express the misery settled on their souls, on their personalities. I was somewhat touched by the misery in the room, but also having come from the meeting the week before, and having taken an adversarial role during the séance, I was torn and confused, and bummed but not irretrievably. We soon left the house and drove home, Frank and I with me driving the bug. After a few miles I said to Frank, I think we need to pray, I’ve never felt so heavy in my life, and neither had he.

We said a short conversational prayer along the lines of "Lord please touch us and lift our spirits and forgive us for what happened back there..." Within a mile we were driving along I- 95 in front of RI Hospital and laughing. Deep wonderful full throated tears in your eyes laughs, like a bolt of lightening out of a sky. Came from God, Of this I have not a doubt..

Within a couple of days we were down in Narragansett because Keith and Mary invited us down for supper every Friday night. (I made onion soup) followed by prayer, music and teaching. Frank and I walked in and I said to Keith "what do you think of ghosts?" He looked at me and said he’d been thinking about that earlier in the day, and in his reading of scriptures came to a simple conclusion, and that was “The devil masquerades” The devil masquerades as whatever our imaginations want or whatever desires need fulfilling in such a way that can draw us away from God. Mr. Pigeon didn’t live in that house, the enemy did, and he was having a hay day with that once wonderful catholic family of 10 kids.

Oh my God, I’d come to accept that there was in fact God, and hadn’t really thought anything of the theological certainty of evil in the world and the prince of darkness was an entity which now makes sense of our time around the table. This presence had attacked each of us according to our weakness. It had scorned my feeble attempt at ghost-evangelism, in fact although Frank and I were doing better, Bob never seemed to come to accept God, and being prone to depression remained depressed for as long as I knew him thereafter. Pat was last seen, Bob tells me, turning tricks at a bar in Providence. In fact Frank continued to talk about Mr. P coming to him in dreams, as did Bob.

Within a month I was flying off to Houston to work in a clinic and be part of an Episcopal Charismatic Christian Community. The prayer group at St. Peters laid their good hands on me around the altar, prayed and sent me to Texas. I’d just turned 19 a month before, I’d spent about 16 months working at Roger Williams Hospital in the Physical Therapy Dept and then in the hospital pharmacy. Before that I was a camp counselor for the summer at Camp Meehan in Lincoln, a day camp from the Smith Hill Center. I took with me a profound knowledge that God is alive, cares about me, wants the best for me; and the devil himself confirmed it by his show of force at the scary little session in Central Falls. That was all the confirmation I needed.

The day I was to leave for Texas I felt an urgent need to say goodbye to my good friend Bob Robinson. He was at work in the Physical Therapy Dept of RI Hospital. Going to his department I was told he was somewhere up on the floors, glancing at my watch I realized I had maybe five minutes to find him in this big sprawling six-story hospital. Improbably I went to the nearest elevator, pushed the 4th floor, took a right, went down a long hall, took another right and walked into the room where he was giving a treatment to a patient. Didn’t think much of it until the nurse drew the curtain to the other patient in that room, a recent burn victim and a brother to one of my parent’s best friends. I was given in my mind an immediate recognition that God brought me to that room to pray for Henry’s brother who nearly blew himself up in his garage with a can of gasoline. As I hurriedly headed home and off to the airport I realized that God was starting to lead me around.

I arrived in Houston the first week of January 1972. I called the church for a ride in, still somewhat mystified that there was no sign of any city while circling the airport, horizon to horizon just tree’s, that’s it. I then discovered that Houston International was actually planted 60 miles out of town. That would be like landing in Boston to get to Providence.

Anyway a lady by the name of Wanda Baker asked me who had invited me. Seemed a strange request on her part. Here I was ready to give my life to this church, live like a servant, pray like a saint, subsist on minimal food, give up pleasures … even my 1 pack of Marlboros a day habit. And she acts like I needed an invite. Well Let’s see, Dr. Bob Eckert wrote back to me to come down, that was it! OK, she’ll find someone to come pick me up, she found a household willing to put me up, or was it put up with me? And I would move right in and meet with Dr. Bob, and Dr. Bob would show me the clinic and with wise grateful eyes shake both my hands and thank me for the gift of my commitment.

Actually it took 3 days to chase Dr. Bob down and another couple of days to be in his presence in his car heading for a prayer meeting in Temple, Texas. He talked about his Karman Ghia, why he loved it so much. It had to do with all the work it needed all the time, how we’re like that, we constantly need work but every time the car get’s fixed he loves it more. And our relationship with God is like that. God loves us even though we need constant work and attention.

It was time to meet with the elders at the Church of Redeemer. This news was delivered to me in such a way as to suggest that it was going to yield life-changing consequences.

If it was up to me, I would have met with them on the way back from the airport, it excited me somewhat to deliver to them the good news that I was here now and everything would be OK. I was sure it would pick up their day.

Since I’d arrived I’d taken part in daily Eucharist and teaching, driving in with my new friends Roy Pettway and Cathleen Thomlinson to the church where they went to work in the print shop. This was a wonderful time for me, sort of an ultimate retreat where everyone I met believed deeply in the healings surrounding us, and Gods doing wonderful things in our sight. It helped that Roy was off his rocker, in a nice way. The first night there at the Minors he introduced me to the 6th floor roof of the U. of Houston dormitory building while we watched two storms converge on two separate horizons, Roy stood up close to the edge and conducted a symphony using thunder and lightening to great effect. I had to ask, where do these people come from? There were dozens of people I’d come to know, and know deeply in my first week there. They were incredibly interesting people from all over the world. I did dishes nightly with a fellow Christian from Israel who was singing a Christian song while Dr. Bob and Bob West were walking down a street in Jerusalem wondering why God had sent them there. It appeared to each of them that it was in order to meet this guy and bring him back to Texas.

Another evening was spent with the "Symphony of Souls", a group of artists and musicians from NYC who’d recently arrived in a colorful bus. The guys all wore blue jeans and faded blue denim shirts with crosses around their collective necks, the women wore hand-made peasant dresses and sandals. They each seemed to play at least 3 instruments and composed music in the moment. You’d have to call it spirit driven improvisational worship which allowed anyone and everyone in, no bystanders, no audience, all went along for the ride. Launched with a scriptural reading we’d find ourselves in ancient Jerusalem, horns honking, burrows braying, shop keepers selling, prophets prophesying, bells, sitars, guitars, flutes, a calliope of sounds crescendoing to voices of many different languages, none of them English lifting the room spiritually almost physically into a realm of otherworldliness.

And that was before dessert.

Everyone took everyone as a friend in their shared journey. I felt at home.

I waited in the downstairs office for my meeting with the elders. There was a woman crying, and expressing fear that she’d end up after this meeting out on the street. There were others in the room obviously wrapped up in other concerns, the air was heavy and those waiting were anxious. Finally it was time for me to walk up those stairs.

The window was open, I wondered if anyone had taken the leap.

Basically the greeting was a hug, and then, Who are you and why are you here? One spoke while the other two drilled their eye’s into my soul. No-one was smiling. Why did they need three guys I wondered to myself, and then realized I had to answer their question. I was sure they didn’t want to hear about how I found God and he seemed to direct me here, that after all was everybody’s story, nothing new.

So assuming they knew more than what I needed to tell them I told them that I was part of the St. Peters charismatic community in Narragansett. Having reached a certain age (Draft Age) and being available to have Richard Nixon send me over to Viet Nam as fodder for the war machine I opted out of their plans for me by declaring myself a conscientious objector, and although I was not likely to be called up due to my draft sweepstakes number of 101.

I felt an obligation to serve my country in some capacity, and given that I was with some confidence in the loving arms of Christ and getting direction from God on a daily basis I felt led to come here and work in the Fourth Ward Clinic. This much direction came from my pastor Keith Scott, and was further confirmed by letters from and a meeting I had with Dr. Bob Eckert in his Karman Ghia on his way to Temple Texas.

I waited probably 20 seconds for a response, though it seemed longer. I looked at them for awhile, then out the window, would have whistled but felt it would be impolite. Finally one of them summed it up. So you’re coming here to use us for a couple of years?

I thought to myself, (Huh?, How’d they get that from all my well expressed good intentions? How does anyone get from here to there? From an honest expression of following God, as they are, to something almost dirty, a phoniness, an attempt to offend, abuse, use? I said nothing, finally one of them said go back to the Minors and keep coming to teaching and Eucharist and find some alone time to pray. Ask God if He’s calling you here, if He is then you are on his schedule and it’ll have nothing to do with your plans. If you here Him calling you here, then you’ll be here until He calls you somewhere else, which could be never. You have to be willing to stay here and live out your life in this community. We will pray for you. We prayed together, and I left, a little heavier than before, but a bit more thoughtful about the seriousness of this calling.

My take away from this meeting, was that these were serious elders. Serious and prayerful and completely given over to the grave responsibility of hearing God for those God puts in front of them. There were no snickers and high fives when I left the room there was prayer. (This thought stayed with me when 2+ years later Cherie and I submitted our decision to get married to the discernment of the elders, though by that time who the elders were became a moving target.)

Wilson House
That Friday evening John Farra came running down the aisle looking for me to let me know that the elders had heard that I was called to Wilson House in the 4th Ward. Huh? Oh, OK…busy weekend coming up how’s next Monday look? No you don’t understand, when you are called, you go. So it was after the Friday night meeting, about 10:00 as I recall that we took all my stuff over to one of the shabbiest streets in Texas. Although nearly in the shadows of downtown, Wilson Street was a narrow dirt road with shotgun shacks leaning this way and that, chain link fences, everywhere you looked needed paint.

The smell was earthy in a way that actually smelled like I imagine the dirt under an outhouse would smell. Walking up the outside porch steps to a rooming house, then to a second floor 10x10 room with lights out so as not to disturb those who’ve already turned in, I sensed on the other side of my tiny room a massive hulk in a tee shirt heaving heavily and giving grunts which would give a hardened rodeo rider second thoughts.

Downstairs the welcoming committee was Howard Curtis and Laverne his wife. Howard was interesting, a certifiable NY Hippie with credentials from Haight-Ashbury, finding God while searching for and finding and smoking magic mushrooms in rural Mexico and ending up at a Bible College in Kerrville, Texas where he met his complete opposite and married her. His faith was matter of fact flavored with high intensity relational gifts of being able to talk to anybody about anything yet bringing it around to God's grace in his life. He was a true believer and you were attracted to his counter-cultural presentation Laverne's was borne out of a quiet certitude with a life lived in small town Texas, she was sweet and faithful. Their son was 3 years old. Also in the household were Charles and Gloria High and their 2-3 year old. Wanda Baker, Donna Hollis, in all there were 6 blacks, and 6 whites living together in Christian unity. We all lived very transparently with our neighbors to the right - the Houston Branch of the Black Panther party - and the left, a fellow named Mr. Jim who sat in his driveway greeting everyone who passed.

4th Ward Clinic
I was put to work at the clinic in the lab with Shirley Mitchell. It was then called the Kennedy Brothers Clinic and was located in the adjunct rooms of a one-time 4th Ward Church, of which there were at least a couple of dozen others. This church became the offices of a Community Action Agency. The collaboration between the clinic and the community action organization was not going well. It seemed the agency wanted us to give some of those high paying jobs to local people in need of work. It also seemed that aside from meeting and taking pictures of each other, and printing a newsletter, the agency was totally ineffective in addressing the needs of the community. In fact the work we were doing seemed to be their only claim to fame. They should have been nicer to us, Bob seemed to not have a lot of patience with the race card being overplayed. A meeting was held and the word was passed, Dr. Bob found a new location for the clinic. Seems Bob noticed an old Weingartens store had gone empty about ½ mile away on the corner of West Dallas and Waugh Dr. He made an appointment with Mr. Weingarten. Walked into his big office and said in effect, I want your building for a clinic. Mr. Weingarten said the rent on a building of that size in that location is going to be pretty high, can you afford it? No. But my father can. Oh? Yes He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. The deal was struck with an old testament reference to an old testament believer.

We were to move the entire clinic after dark. This I’m guessing was to keep the Community Action agency from going public with a story that could have been interpreted according to whomever was doing the telling. We left all 8 rooms clean as a whistle, I was doing the last of the sweeping and I noticed a book in the waiting room; The Great Escape. Every publication got trashed but that one. That one I left on the counter, we put a sign on the door directing our patients down the street. For the record, we did hire folks from the neighborhood, and while we didn’t take salaries ourselves, we did pay some salaries to those who needed a living wage and were not in community.

The clinic was 12 feet tall in debris from all the other Weingarten’s stores. It seemed Mr. Weingarten didn’t like to throw things away, so they were delivered to this location instead. The parking lot was crumbling, the building was crumbling, the walls were crumbling, and it heated up like tin roof Texas outhouse. Air conditioning was not an option, this place took up half a block! We did haul in attic fans and mostly we drank a lot of water and got used to heat. There was no air conditioning at Baldwyn House or at Wilson House, only Wanda’s 15 year old Plymouth Valiant had AC.

This lack of AC actually worked for us in the 4th ward, because it was actually safe to walk around at night. Everyone pretty much say out on their steps. And being polite you had to say Hi. My name, due to my lab smock became Doc. "Good evening Doctor" was a great greeting for a bearded 19 year old with esteem issues. And the sense was nobody messes with those people, they run the clinic, and they follow God. And the 4th Ward was evangelized to beat the band. These were primarily country folk who moved into the city, they had gardens on their tiny lots, and they had respect for each other and above all they were God fearing.

Now their kids and grandkids, not so much on the God fearing side, but they did what their Momma told them. In part because of what they called the switch. A small branch which is so necessary when you’re walking (not a lot of cars or ability to afford one) with your 5 kids you need to have something that’s going to sting, simply to keep them literally in line. But boys will be boys and hormones ruled the day, so Cherie’s average OB patient (Young mothers) was about 14. So we often had 28 year old grandmothers, bringing in girls just out of elementary school.

The only "A" word as far as we were concerned was Adoption. And the attorneys in the community often worked to place children with adoptive parents. Sometimes connections would be made with other charismatic communities.

In the lab, Shirley Mitchell did a wonderful job of teaching volunteers how to do everything she did. She had a wonderful heart, which had been broken often enough for her to be able to relate well to anyone. She had a burden for patients who were showing up with Sickle Cell Anemia and she went about putting together an effort with zero funding to reach and test as many people as possible. This meant working with a renegade from a drug company who shared the formula (wait a minute, not going there)

This meant working with all kinds of good people including our neighbors the Black Panther Party. We collected glass tubes from area hospitals, had Texas Southern University School of Medical Technology do back up tests, and formularize a screening test, and it meant we reached literally thousands of Houston’s blacks for sickle cell anemia.

On down time, we went to area parks. One of our favorite places for the young unmarrieds of the Medical Community was out in Spring Texas, Picture a river down a long leafy path with snakes and free range bulls. Then we get to this sandy wide river, over there are the water moccasins so keep splashing, up on that bluff you can hang your Mexican hammock, down here in the sand we threw Frisbees. This was Catholic Diocese land, and one of my best friends in community, Father Jack McGinnis talked his bishop into allowing us to go through the gate, along with Vietnamese boat people who moved trailers onto the semi-tropical paradise.

A good part of the time I spent with Father Jack was at the Juvenile Detention Center where we went once a week to talk to the kids about how we lived, why we lived this way, and what it has to do with them. How faith works, how faith can actually lead you out of trouble and into a better place. The guards called it “church” and insisted that they all come. Murderers, prostitutes, thieves, drug addicts they all went first to this center. To us it was a sharing generally ending with kids asking us to pray for them, and not a dry eye in the room.

Other times we went into the city to enjoy the big air conditioned lobbies of the big beautiful hotels and people watch. The week of the Super Bowl was surrealistic with rich, rich rich guys with rich rich rich women doing rich rich things and getting interviewed by local TV stations. You can’t outdo Houston for opulence, and it was fun to watch.

Which brings us back to Mr. Jim, the fellow next door fixing toasters and fans.

He was integrally part of the 4th Ward community. After Cherie and I were married we became somehow his last-of-kin according to hospital records, and it was left to me to figure out how to get him buried.

He apparently was put into a hospital whereupon he became lost in the shuffle, we were his sole visitors and as such it came to us to make the arrangements. We were presented with a bit of a dilemma, Jim as stated was black, we were white. Funeral parlors were Segregated. Through an old girlfriend of Jims we discovered his only living relatives were from Shreveport Louisiana. We contacted them and their church took up a collection to put them on a bus to Houston. She was ancient, the nephew was “shell shocked”. The local undertaker, Jimmy Pruitt, got on the phone with Jim's sister and said if you all don’t show up with $2000 then I’m gonna have to send him over to Baylor College of Medicine to have him experimented on She handed me the phone in between sobs she told me what it was he wanted. We would not be dealing with the local black funeral director. So I shopped Jim all over the place, finally found a white director who was willing to bury him, graveside service, and he’d even throw in some calling hours; although he knew no-one would show up, and he was right. Then the problem presented itself as to what graveyard would do business with a white director, answer: none. And in 1974 Houston a black man was not going to be buried in a white cemetery. A little bit out of town I found a lady who managed a sweet looking cemetery, and although for six years I never picked up a southern accent, I was able to come up with a serviceable black southern accent. We took up a collection at the clinic and many of us attended the graveside services of our friend and patient, Jim. Joe Byrne presided as I recall.

Long before we buried Jim I’d helped welcome an infant into the world, Laverne did the heavy lifting I did the catching of Samuel David into my insulated jacket. He was the second child of a young black lady Charles brought home to Wilson House. Her first son, Troy came with her. Her name was Covetta. My job was to get us to the hospital on time, but there’s an awful lot of one way streets in downtown Houston and the best I could do was the Hospital Parking lot .The delivery room was Howards VW minibus. As the early morning mist was burning off the hoods of the car a stretcher with garbed medical personal made it’s way to the correct minibus. The one with the beautiful black mother and the ashen colored driver.

For my bravery and not for my ability to make appointments on time, I was awarded naming privileges, thus Samuel David. Samuel David was adopted by a family in Michigan. He’d be nearly 40 now, I hope he knows how much his Mother loved him.

So Many Other Stories to be Told . . .
There were many other adventures related to Wilson House, our neighbors over at Montrose House, and the clinic. This to me was my golden age of Community. As idealistic followers of our faith, always imperfectly, we basked in the difficulties before us, not noticing really that we were working many hours, eating healthy but limited diets, sensing that the journey we were on was to be the direction the church would be taking world wide, it would have to. A future of limited resources, War, moral decay…all of this would be literally driving the church into community. Wouldn’t it? ©2011. Click site map to navigate
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