This story has been updated.

Janeth Urbina found medical help at the place she least expected it — her church.

The Colombian immigrant’s pastor at Coker United Methodist Church en Español told her of a nurse who spoke Spanish and could help connect her with the help she needed.

Urbina, who is uninsured, had been suffering from an eye infection and didn’t know where to go or who to speak to about getting help. 

She found someone who understood and could treat her in Sonia Cavazos, a faith community nurse from Methodist Healthcare Ministries’ Wesley Nurse program, which is celebrating its 25th year of embedding registered nurses into churches across 74 counties in South Texas. In Bexar County, Cavazos is one of 13 nurses working out of Methodist churches, providing care to uninsured, underserved communities. 

What looked like mostly paperwork and conversation led to Urbina’s prayers being answered: She left with an appointment to see a specialized doctor to treat the infection, and a voucher for a free eye exam and, if needed, glasses.

“I don’t know what I would do [otherwise] because I don’t have insurance,” said Urbina in Spanish, her voice trembling, tears in her eyes. She expressed deep gratitude for the program. “Us, without help, without a medical site if a child or husband gets sick… It’s something for us who need help.”

Urbina is just one of many uninsured patients in San Antonio who have been helped by the registered nurses who’ve chosen a faith-based approach to serving their community.

The includes Juanita Lopez, who has been with the program since 1997, and is currently based at St. John’s United Methodist Church in San Antonio.

She described the deep satisfaction she gets from helping those who have the least by sharing an anecdote about one of her most memorable cases, which happened more than 20 years ago.

A man from El Salvador was hit by a car while riding his bike home from a meat processing plant on the South Side. The accident paralyzed him, Lopez said, but because he was undocumented, he didn’t qualify for any assistance after he was discharged from the hospital.

“When I first met him… I said, ‘I’m gonna be here with you until you get your own wings and you can fly,'” said Lopez.

And that’s exactly what she did.

After discovering that undocumented people from El Salvador would be able to remain in the U.S. legally for a period of time following a pair of earthquakes in the Central American country, Lopez was able to get the man a work permit, enroll him in Social Security and secure an electric wheelchair — and when he did finally recover, she helped him find a job.

In another case, she helped a family get free beds for their young children. “It is above and beyond,” said Lopez, of Wesley nurses’ work in the community.

She said that work of being there for people, collaborating and forming relationships, is what Wesley nurses will continue doing for the next 25 years.

A holistic approach

Methodist Healthcare Ministries, a nonprofit funded through its co-ownership of the Methodist Healthcare System, launched the Wesley Nurse program in 1997 with 30 nurses. Named after John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, today more than 80 Wesley nurses work throughout the 74-county area that Methodist serves in South Texas.

A registered nurse subspecialty, faith community nursing “draws its heritage from the roots of nursing, which evolved from the early church and the concept of Shalom, which is wholeness, completeness, contentment and peace,” wrote Amy Roedl, a former Wesley nurse, for the program’s 20th anniversary.

In practice, that means Wesley nurses take a holistic approach to care, identifying what a patient is going through, what their needs are and what’s impacting their health. Wesley nurses form relationships with their patients, and work to find them the resources they need.

To do that, nurses incorporate themselves into each community, doing outreach to connect with nonprofits in the area and learn what resources are available. A Wesley nurse essentially becomes a hub of healthcare and other community resources, said Catalina​ Schultze-Kraft, director of Methodist Healthcare Ministries Regional Nursing and Wellness Programs.

Sonia Cavazos, Wesley Nurse at Coker United Methodist Church, helps Amalia Rodriguez, an uninsured resident, obtain eye glasses and shares resources so she can see a dentist for care. Rodriguez, who speaks only Spanish, had all her questions answered by Coker last Thursday at a food drive.
Sonia Cavazos, Wesley Nurse at Coker United Methodist Church, helps Amalia Rodriguez, an uninsured resident who speaks only Spanish, obtain eyeglasses and connect with a dentist. Credit: Raquel Torres/ San Antonio Report

This process is known as “asset-based community development,” she said. “How do we … engage with neighbors and organizations with a purpose of empowering groups to be able to do something around health?”

On average, a nurse sees four to five patients a day for free, most of whom are Spanish-speaking and undocumented. When a patient visits a Wesley Nurse, they don’t necessarily undergo a medical check-up, but more of a consultation.

Whether the person needs food, a wheelchair or financial assistance burying a loved one, the nurse’s role is to connect them with those resources. If a patient does need medical attention, the nurse will refer them to one of Methodist Healthcare Ministries’ two sliding-scale clinics or other community clinics, where they can see a doctor and get the treatment they need. 

Becoming more strategic

To better reach communities most in need, the program rolled out a zip code project last year.

Schultze-Kraft said that when Methodist Ministries mapped where their nurses were working, they noticed the program didn’t have a presence in some zip codes whose residents faced some of the worst health outcomes.

Before the zip code project, nurses were placed with churches already engaged with communities living in poverty that were actively seeking to hire a faith community nurse.

Schultze-Kraft said the goal of the project was increasing health equity, by serving in areas that do not have the same resources other neighborhoods do.

Advancing health equity is a cornerstone of Methodist’s ministry. Just this week, the nonprofit announced $130 million investment in various health equity and community partnerships, an increase of almost 15% over the previous year’s funding.

The program’s mapping project found that zip code 78203, located on the city’s East Side, has the lowest life expectancy in Bexar County, said Schultze-Kraft, yet the program didn’t have a presence in the area.

Today, a Wesley nurse works nearby out of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, doing what Wesley nurses do best, connecting with the community and making sure they are treating the neediest residents’ “mind, body and soul.”

Schultze-Kraft acknowledged that there’s only so much a single nurse in a single church community can do — but by collaborating and building community, that work is multiplied.

“When we partner with other organizations and residents to work towards one goal, all these amazing things can happen. My hope is that in the next 20, 35 years, we can make that happen in all our sites with all our communities,” she said.

Methodist Healthcare Ministries is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

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Raquel Torres

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. She previously worked at the Tyler Morning Telegraph and is a 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University.