On Wednesday, December 20th, while many were finishing their Christmas shopping, Special Superior Court Judge Gregory McGuire heard arguments in a Raleigh, North Carolina courtroom for an injunction against the demolition of Belhaven’s Pungo Hospital, which would allow the rural community to re-open its hospital in 2017. As Christians pause this weekend to remember the poor boy born in Bethlehem when there was no room in the inn, we should all lift a prayer for Judge McGuire. He must consider on our behalf the fate of thousands of poor boys and girls in Eastern North Carolina this Christmas.
Just as the conditions of cities were rapidly changing during the Industrial Revolution, when Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol, ” life in rural America is changing today. No doubt, many votes for Donald Trump in this past election were a cry for help from poor people in places like Belhaven, where Republican mayor Adam O’Neal has been leading the charge to save Pungo hospital. Today’s Ghost of Christmas Past might well take us to visit the school children in Belhaven who raised $15, 000 just after World War II to win a matching grant made available by the 1947 bipartisan Hill-Burton Act. Their efforts led to the construction of this critical access hospital in 1948, exemplifying the spirit of the land of the long leaf pine, “where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great.” Thanks to those childrens’ Christmas gift, poor people in Eastern North Carolina have had access to an emergency room for more than four generations.
But the Ghost of Christmas Present would have to take us to visit Portia Gibbs’ home, where two children in Eastern North Carolina don’t have their mother this year. She was the first person to die of a heart attack after the Pungo hospital closed its doors in the summer of 2014. Since then, others have died for lack of access to critical care, including Dr. Charles Boyette, the very physician who served his community from Pungo Hospital and fought to save it until his death. If Dickens were telling the story, Dr. Boyette would no doubt be the Jacob Marley, inviting us all to look more closely at a community he knew so well.
Even still, it’s the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that should haunt every person of conscience who can see what is happening in communities like Belhaven. Yes, we know this state’s centers of economic growth are in Charlotte, the Triangle, the Triad and Asheville. Capital has centralized in urban America, and cities have become the population centers where we expect universal high quality healthcare for our citizens, rich or poor. But imagine a future 10 or 20 years from now, when the Pungo Hospital has been destroyed and condos have been built in its place on the waterfront. Imagine yourself in one of those condos, enjoying retirement with the grandkids, down from the big city for the weekend. And then try to imagine experiencing the heart attack that no one ever expects, but that struck Portia Gibbs and Dr. Boyette all the same.
Maybe you say to yourself, “I’ll be sure to buy a condo in Wilmington or West Palm Beach.” Still, the Ghost of Christmas Past won’t leave you alone, because there are Tiny Tims in Eastern North Carolina who will miss their grandfather just as much as your grandkids would miss you. This is why the One who was born in Bethlehem when there was no room in the inn grew up to say, “Whenever you did it to one of the least, you did it to me.”
Just as Scrooge learned in Dickens’ tale, man-made misery can be corrected. No matter how long we’ve ignored our poor and sick neighbors, we can learn to do right—both for their sakes and for our own. Like the school children of Christmases past in Belhaven, concerned citizens today have started a nonprofit, Pungo Medical Center, and secured funding to purchase the hospital building at its appraised value from the LLC that currently owns the building. With an injunction from Judge McGuire, these folks will have time to negotiate purchase in the new year and do the hard but essential work of re-opening their hospital to serve rich and poor alike.
Along with pastors and their congregations in Beaufort, Hyde, Pamlico, Wayne, Wake, Durham, Guilford, Buncombe, Forsyth and Mecklenburg counties, we are praying this Christmas for an injunction to save Pungo hospital. Because we believe, as our state’s constitution says, that “beneficent provision for the poor is the first duty of a Christian society, ” we echo Tiny Tim to pray with the people of Belhaven, “God bless us, every one!”
Wherever you are, we hope you’ll join the Forward Together Moral Movement in our prayer this Christmas.