YPSILANTI, Mich. — During 35 years of serving the poor, Dr. Daniel Heffernan has learned some simple lessons.
“If you look for a need and try to fill it, things will start happening. God does it,” said the Catholic physician from Plymouth, Mich.
Another key is that God speaks through others. “At least he's done that with me,”
Heffernan started a medical outreach to migrant workers in Midland, Mich., and a clinic in Ypsilanti (near Detroit) that blossomed into a dozen programs for the needy. He recently added an international medical outreach to Nicaragua.
On the side, he has been involved in prison ministry.
All the while, the family practitioner kept up his full-time medical practice in Ypsilanti until he retired last January.
But he did not retire from serving the poor at Ypsilanti's Hope Clinic where he still sees patients twice a week and serves as president of Hope Center, which runs a food bank, a free laundry service, a dental clinic, a shopping service and a restaurant for the indigent.
Combined, Hope agencies serve around 3,000 people a year, according to Executive Director Cathy Robinson. “A year-and-a-half ago, with 45 people jamming the clinic on Saturday mornings, we opened up a Wednesday slot.” Soon, Wednesday times were crowded, too. “We serve up to our capacity. We could always serve more,” she said.
Heffernan first attempted to meet the medical needs of the poor after he had been practicing medicine about 10 years in Midland. He and wife Beverly met some migrant workers through their involvement with the Catholic Family Movement there.
“We were invited to meet a group of Mexican-American migrants who came to Michigan each year to harvest the sugar-beet crop,” he said. “We'd go out and visit, take them to church and our kids would play ball with their kids. I saw they had a terrible need for medical care that was going completely unmet.”
So Heffernan and one of his nurses took a station wagon full of vitamins and antibiotics and ace bandages out to the migrants to provide care. Soon the demand was so great the doctor had to open an after-hours clinic and, finally, move the service to nearby public health facilities.
“We had volunteer nurses and pharmacy reps, we had interns and residents and students and people who did clerical work. We did very little to make it happen, it just sort of sprang up.”
The clinic continued for the entire decade of the 60s until it was taken over by agencies that used “significant” federal funding to accomplish the same thing.
“That frustrated me a bit, but I realized it wasn't really something I had done in the first place, God had started it,” said the physician.
A few years later, the Heffernans moved to Ann Arbor, Mich. so that Dan could join other Christian physicians in a family practice. His practice was going well and he was beginning to take on responsibility in a prayer group when he was abruptly faced with a new challenge.
“I went on retreat with some people from the prayer group. I visited the chapel and prayerfully received the strong impression that I was becoming a ‘fat cat.’ It was as if the Lord was telling me, ‘I don't have any use for fat cats.’”
Heffernan said he asked God what he should do.
Within a few weeks, three people approached him separately with unsolicited suggestions. “One asked if I could come down to minister to prisoners in the jail. Another asked if I had considered starting a free medical clinic. And yet another shared a personal experience that made me realize I should take God's call to be generous very seriously.”
Heffernan said he was sure God was answering his prayer for direction.
“Within a short period of time we got started with a Saturday morning walk-in clinic for the indigent. Some good Christian women started sending home-baked bread and rolls. Soon, someone else was sending fresh eggs. Without me even thinking about it, our food bank began,” he related.
When a deacon from his parish, Mike Leverington, started visiting the jails, Dr. Heffernan came along. Soon other ministries were starting up.
He hired Cathy Robinson, a social worker who was then managing a homeless shelter in Ann Arbor, to manage services associated with the clinic. Soon other doctors and dentists were also joining Heffernan.
“Docs are very busy people. It takes some doing to convince a doctor to use his spare time to practice medicine,” laughed Heffernan. “But some of the Christian physicians in my practice were very generous.”
During its 20 years of operation, Hope has received countless kudos and awards from Catholic parishes and local social service agencies.
Father James McDougall of St. Francis Assisi Parish in nearby Ann Arbor has worked with Hope Clinic for almost 8 years.
“I have found that they do an excellent job working with the poor in our area. We do we all can to support them, not only financially but also by making sure that the people in our parish — especially professionals — know about Hope so they can share their talents and gifts and so build up the body of Christ,” he said.
Denise Brown of Christian Love Fellowship, a predominately African-American church in Ypsilanti, also praised Hope's work among the poor. “We refer people to them regularly. We send people to their new restaurant, Oasis, that serves the needy.”
Andrea (Hope asks the media to use only the first names of its clients.), an Ypsilanti mother of three, likes the atmosphere at Hope's Shop With Pride, which she visits every week to find items she can't buy with food stamps. “I love this place. Everyone is so warm and caring that it makes me enjoy coming here,” she said.
Often, those helped by Hope end up giving back by volunteering, said Robinson.
One woman came to Hope after loosing medical coverage when her company went out of business. Shortly afterwards, the woman's troubles were compounded with an automobile accident.
After she recovered with the help of Hope's medical and dental clinics, the woman started volunteering. Now back in the work force, she sends monthly donations.
Mike Frison, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, said when he is bringing a new person into his church, he invites them to Oasis, Hope's new restaurant.
“They can see Christianity at work,” he said.
Kate Ernsting werites from Ann Arbor, Michigan.