The MercyMed office on Second Avenue look like many other doctors offices in Columbus -- until you start talking to Dr. Grant Scarborough.
The clinic is different in that many of its patients are the least among us. Scarborough, too, is a little different. His medical practice has the feel of a Christian mission.
What he is doing -- and the successful manner in which he is doing it -- has brought attention. He will be honored by his alma mater, the Mercer School of Medicine.
Recently, Scarborough sat down with reporter Chuck Williams to talk about MercyMed and his journey.
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Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.
What is MercyMed?
What is MercyMed? I guess the easiest way is to tell you about our mission statement. Our mission statement says we exist to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and demonstrate His love. We are a Christian nonprofit ministry. We want to tell folks about the Great Physician named Jesus, but we also want to demonstrate His love. Everybody we see we don't necessarily pray with.
We try to listen to the spirit and proclaim when we can. The big thing is demonstrating. The scripture says: "When Christ shows the full extend of his love, He washes us at cycle speed." And the way we see it we want to wash the wounds of our patients. That we want to take care of folks in such a good way that they realize there's something behind our motivation.
This looks more like a doctor's office than a mission.
It's hopefully a little bit of both -- that's the goal. When I was in med school my brother-in-law called me and revealed to me in Scripture that the first physicians were actually priests. There's perfect protocols on how to take care of skin disorders and God gave it to the priests to do that, to take care of the physical beings and the spiritual beings. And it is our hope here that we do a little bit of both.
We care for people's physical beings, but realize they are more than bone and flesh, so we want to take care of their spiritual, emotional and every aspect of their life.
You're located here just off of North Highland, one of the poorest parts of our town. Who is your typical patient?
Our patient is a huge spectrum. Twenty percent of the people in Columbus have no health insurance -- 1 in 5 -- and yet some of those are homeless, but a lot of those folks are working as hard as they can, cutting grass or cutting hair, just can't afford $10,000 to $12,00 a year for health insurance. So, there's no typical patient. That's the easiest way of answering that.
We'll have someone who is homeless come through. We have a patient that we see that is homeless and has a hard time controlling his urine and you can smell him before you see him -- we love taking care of him. And we have hard-working individuals that are trying to start businesses; we have folks who were doing well that just lost their insurance. All of that is really just across the board.
Seventy percent of our people have no health insurance.
Seventy percent of your patients?
That's right, no health insurance, and they have a hard time getting health care, and what they end up doing is going to the ER. So, our hope is that we see them and give them the best health care we can without them going to the ER.
And the hope is that we will bring them dignity and honor, but we'll take care of them so they're not having to wait for another handout and they can get back to work and get back to doing what they normally do.
What led you to this place and to this calling?
It's really my faith in Christ, to realize he cared for us in our poverty, he cared for us in our brokenness, and it resonates with me. If you actually look at Scripture it talks more about caring for the poor than it does about going to church and it does about praying, than it does about reading your Scripture.
And God has this huge value; he wants us to care for the less fortunate. So, I feel like really this isn't my heart; I feel like it's God. And it's something I feel like the Christian faith doesn't emphasize enough. It really started when I was in ministry in Atlanta and I started taking high school kids down to care for the poor and I think God just pricked my heart -- I loved it.
I love caring for folks that are having a hard time just getting their basic needs met. And not going down there to be their savior because I'm not -- Christ is their savior -- but going down there just to be with them and finding ways to see if we could help each other.
From your viewpoint sitting here in Columbus, why do we need the poor more than the poor need us?
If you want to know about faith, if you want to know about hope, I will take you to visit Miss Cookie. She's got nothing. She's got a trach -- she cannot speak. She lives in a small shotgun house.
How far from this clinic?
Two hundred yards, maybe. She can tell you about the love of Jesus and understands it more than I ever have. Every time she comes in here we talk about Jesus, and I love it. I wish she would just move into this building because she encourages me so much.
To see people who have lost everything and still have hope -- to be honest with you, when I have bad days, I have things I can call upon. I have some money, my wife goes shopping, I go eat chocolate milkshakes. But to see people who have very little and still find their hope and peace in a savior is inspiring. And when you serve them, yes, you are blessing them, they need some needs met, but when they start praying for you and asking how your children are, saying they're praying for your kids and family, it is a mutual blessing.
And that's really true. I'll never forget I read a book called "When Helping Hurts," and in the middle of it, it said, "Until you can get to the point where you can say 'Lord, have mercy on me and my friends,' your ministry will never be good."
And that day I walked in and saw a friend in Augusta, Charlie Jerry, and when I was walking out, he said, "Doctor, will you pray for me?" And I said, "I'll pray for you, but will you pray for me?" And he put his hand on me and every time he prayed, he'd pump his arm and his hand would get tighter and tighter. He prayed and prayed and prayed, and he said, "Did you feel it, Dr. Scarborough, did you feel it?"
And I did and we became friends because we started praying for one another. He had nothing and we had him over for Thanksgiving dinner and he'd come over to our house and we built a relationship simply through brokenness and friendship. And it all started realizing that we're not the Savior, only Jesus is, and we are called just to our little part. I was called to help him and he was called to pray for me.
You work with the least among us a lot of the times, right?
Poverty is the common denominator. We all see poverty; we ride by it in our cars. Very few of us take the time to get out and talk to the people and build relationships.
When somebody says poverty in Columbus, what do you think?
There is just a lot of ways to define poverty. Could poverty be in relationships? It could be someone well off who is completely lonely on the inside. But I think what we're talking about mostly is poverty of finances.
We're talking economic poverty.
The reality is most folks don't know it and I'm still learning it. We have interns come every year and some from Columbus, and I remember one intern looking at me and saying, "I've lived here all of my life and I never knew what was back behind these streets here."
It's in every level. For instance, physical abuse and sexual abuse is almost commonplace; addiction is a lot more frequent; mental illness is rampant. So, you are dealing with a lot of issues, but at the same time, right behind us, there is some community pride. People love this community -- they want something great for this community. It's hard to explain but it's not much different than we are.
The reality is their brokenness looks a lot dirtier than our wealthiness -- almost. We have everything together but we're still broken. They know they're broken and they know they need help. I'm not really a homeless ministry; it's more like a working poor type of ministry.
... I recently went back into the community. A patient took me back there to meet a friend and he lives in a crack house. I knew where the crack house was but I never thought I'd walk on the steps of it to take care of someone. He was sitting up there with all kinds of things -- I didn't know what they were. But one thing was the Bible, so we're talking about Jesus on the steps of the crack house. Then a prostitute came down and asked me to come down because one of her friends were passing out. So, we walked down the street to the prostitution house and talked to the lady who was passing out and trying to give her health care. It's just a hard question, but the reality is it's different in a lot of different situations.
You grew up as a son of privilege in this community. You grew up in Brookstone School. You grew up in a family that was well off. You are now working on the lower end on that social economic scale. What has that taught you?
I didn't realize I was well off growing up. In fact, I became more well off when I grew up. I didn't realize it until high school -- "Hey, we're doing pretty well." But to be honest, I think there is two things. One is my parents. We were always taking in and helping the less fortunate when I was growing up.
There was an article in the paper a while back about a guy named Kojac who was killed and how a lot of folks took him in. Well, the reason they took him in is because he played basketball at our house every day and we got to know him. We were the people who got to hang out with him, eat dinner with him, and had him over all of the time.
So, your parents modeled this behavior.
Yes, but there are many Kojacs that came through, so there was just a love for the less fortunate at my house. And I think that was a modeled behavior that I learned. And I think everybody is called to do something different. Everybody doesn't need to do what I'm doing, thank goodness, but I think God just put in my heart a desire for those who are a little rough around the edges.
I love caring for the rougher crowd. I love caring for the less fortunate, and I think it's just a little bit the heart of Christ and I want to follow those footsteps. I don't want to make my friends back here who are very poor wealthy -- that's not the answer. The answer is that I want them to walk in a right relationship with Christ and I don't want them to be dependant on others, to have freedom of that. But we all have our idols. Theirs is just a little different. I don't want to shift one set of idols to a different set of idols, so I want them to know the Maker, the Creator, so they are free of idols. We want community development as well. And yes, we want to run the riffraff off, but we also want to build a community of individuals who want to live kind of in the set rules of that community and live at peace, to feel the shalom of God in their midst. I think it's just the heart of Christ that led me to it.
Did you ever think about taking the traditional path and becoming a family physician?
In Proverbs it says, "With an abundance of elders there is victory." Before I went to med school, I was in Atlanta, so I went to speak with one of my friends who was a little bit older. I said, "This is what I want to do, what do you think I should do?" And he said, "I think you should go and be a doctor, and I said, "You're crazy. I don't want to be a doctor."
That's why it says 'an abundance of elders' because this one elder had no value at all, so I go to the next guy and he says exactly the same thing. And two weeks later I get a letter from a friend of my father. He said, "I've been praying about you and I think I should write you a letter saying you ought to go and be a doctor."
I don't want to be a doctor. "All right, Lord, I believe in processes, so there must be something I should learn along this way. I know you don't want me to be a doctor." So, I applied to med school and I got in. I really think I'm one of the few people in the world to be completely dejected when I got accepted to med school.
I said, "Oh, my goodness, I wasn't supposed to get accepted." But in there I wrote, "I want to go to med school so I can care for individuals in urban settings that have very little." And I applied early to Mercer because I know that was a little bit their mission, and the word got back to me that they didn't believe me. I'm really serious! I want to care for folks -- not rural poverty, I want to care for urban poverty. So when I went to med school that was my goal.
When I went to training, I went to Memphis because the county south of Memphis was the poorest county in the U.S., and they had two clinics there like this, and I wanted to go there and see it modeled out to see if I might be able to do something.
What brought you home?
We started the clinic (in Augusta) in 2007, and it was with a friend, Robert Campbell. It was going great. Everything was going according to plan and we were growing and seeing more patients. We wanted to get involved in the community and we were looking for houses to move into the community. If you read books about community development, it's all about not coming in and doing something for patients, it's about becoming a neighbor, so we were looking into becoming a neighbor, moving into the community, and I got to where I was really unsettled. I said, "Lord, I don't know what you're telling me," and I just started praying.
After a while I said, "Lord, I don't know what you're telling me, but if you are freeing me up to go someplace else and start another one, you need to bring another doctor because I can't leave Dr. Campbell by himself. And within two weeks a guy showed up out of nowhere, we hired him, we had another doctor. And I forgot about it. Six months later I got uncomfortable again and I said, "Oh yeah, you did kind of send that sign. Lord, it's not enough. I need another one." Shallow of faith. I said, "If you want me to move on, you need to bring me a job offer because I'm not going to look." And within two weeks I had two or three different job offers out of the blue.
It was just so unnerving. I said, "All right, Lord, let's start looking." And Hal Brady was at St. Luke and so were a couple of other guys at St. Luke who had flown up a couple of years earlier to see what we were doing. They wanted to start a clinic here in town.
I gave them what I thought was what they needed to start a clinic, with someone who wants to be a missionary doctor. And Hal kept calling me back saying, "I think you're that guy." And I kept saying, "Hal, I'm not."
It seems like you tell God "no" a lot.
I do -- it's a bad thing. We have a note in my house that says, "Anne, I will never marry you." Signed, Grant. I gave it to my wife and she said she would keep it in case something changes. At our rehearsal dinner she gave it to me and I forgot all about it. So, I guess I do.
How did the MercyMed offer come, or did you come back and start talking to people you knew here and put it together that way?
I came back to Hal and said, "Hal, we have a clinic in Augusta. It serves the whole city and I love that. And I would be interested in doing a clinic here but I don't want to do a clinic for just one church or one denomination. I would like to do it for the city." He said, "Good, that's exactly what we want."
So, we called it MercyMed and Hal helped me set up a meeting with a lot of other ministers. I said, "I would love to come back. Would y'all be encouraged by this as something you would enjoy?" So, it really started with Hal being kind of the cheerleader for us and that was right before he retired.
Were you at St. Luke growing up?
Until I think about fifth grade and then our family moved to Edgewood Baptist. My grandfather kept going there for years. So that's how it started, with Hal being our cheerleader and encouraging us and kind of paving the way in opening some doors for us.
Your family has deep, deep roots in this community, right? Tell me a little bit about your mom and dad.
You know, it changes when you are a child to when you are an adult. I left right after high school and hadn't been back until a few years ago. I think of the impact that he has had just from a business mind, so it's amazing to me now to look at him and to see what he has done.
Your dad is Otis Scarborough, right?
Yeah. I just stand in awe of what he has done, because when we were growing up we had nothing. He moved here two weeks before I was born and had nothing. He didn't have a job; he didn't have anything. And to see his hard work, and I work hard, too, and I think I get a lot of that from my dad. He got up early every morning. I get up early in the morning to do all of my work. At the same time, he never missed a sporting event; he never missed a game. And so I try to do the same thing for my kids.
One of my kids just turned 10, and whenever they turn 10, I take them on a hiking trip. Last weekend, I was three days and two nights in the woods with little Jessie hiking 14 miles. So growing up, I knew a dad that was always there because he got up early in the morning and left, who worked through struggles in life to do well. It was sheer hard work and God's grace that got him to where he is today.
So, I love to look at that and say, "Boy, I want to work hard like my dad did, I want to love my family like Dad did." And through all of that, he cared for the poor. He was always giving people second chances. He was visiting some of these friends we talked about in prison. We were taking Christmas presents to all of these different individuals. So that was modeled from him, and he still does that today. It's amazing how much he's still giving and doing for folks that are less fortunate that no one knows about. He is a man worthy of being honored, so I am glad to walk in his footsteps.
My mother, Sandy Scarborough, is just the heart of it all -- she's the love and the compassion. I tell folks her spiritual gifts are brownies and hugs. She makes the best brownies in the world and she just hugs everybody. When I went off to college I would call home and my friends are there and I say, "What are you doing?" "We came to get brownies and hugs." And that's my Mom's heart, just that kind of passion and love and care. So, if you walk through this clinic when I see patients, I'm hugging all of the patients. I don't care what they look like. Some look great, they dress nicer than me, and some don't smell that well.
I love in Scripture where Jesus touched the leper. The male leper in that time was considered unclean. He was not allowed to go into any social settings. He wasn't allowed to go to church. He had to ring a bell whenever people came nearby and yell, "Unclean." And Jesus touched him. I love that. When people come in that people consider unclean, I just want to touch them without gloves on. I want to say, "I'm not afraid to just touch you and tell you that here's a touch of a loving person," and just to show them the love of Christ through that. So, I think I get a lot of that from my Mom even though she would use a lot of Purell.
Why are so many of us so uncomfortable doing that?
Because we are not around individuals like that, I think. We think that they are different from us, and the reality is they are just as broken as we are.
Their brokenness looks uglier because of addiction. We had a patient come in the other day that had an addiction and lost everything -- making six figures, now homeless. And yeah, it might look uglier, but in reality we are all broken and we all need someone who is willing to love us and care for us. We've got to break down those walls. I think a lot of it is we have grown up in a society where we hear it's all about -- I struggle with this -- us. Look at advertising. It's all about me. It's all about what you can do for yourself. America is about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and Christ comes along and says it's actually about dying to yourself and loving others.
So, this Jesus we follow is different from the American dream we hear about. It's about considering others more important than yourself. To do that is hard. Some days I do it great and some days I just want to think about myself. It's a daily struggle for me, and I think it's a daily struggle for all of us because we are taught from birth to love ourselves so much that we figure that God says, "Die unto yourself and love others."
Where does your deep, deep faith come from?
The reality that I could do nothing, that God has set his affection upon me.
When did you realize you had this faith and this spirit that you seem to have? This strong, strong faith.
I'm still trying to realize it. I'm not being funny, but sometimes I feel like my faith is strong and sometimes I have doubts and struggle. I think a little bit is you put a little step out there and you see God bless a little of that and you get the courage to take another little step, you may get the courage to take another little step, and to me it's seeing God pave the way. When we started our clinic in Augusta, we had $20.
How many patients do you see a year?
We opened January 2012, and last year we saw 9,000 patients.
How many of those 9,000 people would not see a doctor in a non-emergency room setting if you weren't here?
Well, a large amount wouldn't. ... I have some folks come in with chest pains, left-sided chest pains who do not have insurance. I take an EKG (of one patient) and it doesn't look like a heart attack, but I can't tell if it's a heart attack or not with one snapshot, so I say, "You need to go to the ER, this could be bad." And he refused, and I'm just pleading with him. I said, "Listen, just go. You've got to go to make sure you are OK." Because of the pride of some folks not wanting to owe anybody anything or the fear of the ER or the fear of the unknown, a lot of times they won't go.
Where does this go from here? Where does this mission, this practice go from here?
We have a three-fold mission. One is taking care of individuals in a clinic. And as you can see we are out of space so we are expanding. We've raised over 90 percent of what we need to expand.
Who is your typical donor?
You know, it's amazing. It's all across the board -- the poorest in the city to the most well off. Sometimes you'll see here an individual with nothing help pay for someone who needs to be seen. It's amazing. The generosity goes across the board. The hospitals help, businesses help, foundations help, churches help. So, it really is all across the board. We're not a free clinic. We do think it's important that people invest in their health care, so it's very little. Most folks pay $25 and get over $300 worth of health care.
There's been so much in this community that has changed for the good since you left and came back. There's a lot of downtown redevelopment and a lot of really good things. Were there some people left behind when Columbus changed, when the community moved forward?
Yes. There always is in changes. There are always folks left behind, but I think there were more picked up in the process. So, I think the overall is good for the whole. But there's always going to be some people no matter what you do. Even the stuff we're doing here, we realize it's helping 90 percent.
There's probably a small population that it's not helping as much, but I think the overall has been good for the community. Columbus is the most generous city I've ever seen. You ride down Second Avenue and there's so many wonderful ministries -- Valley Rescue, Open Door, the Homeless Resource Network. There's so much going on that's good in this city and it's not one little health clinic. It is beyond measure. It is the heart of a great city. We want to do some good and we want to make this better, but right now they're talking about improving the other side of Second Avenue.
But if you hear them talk, you hear about "We want to do this better" -- but how do we love and care for folks in the process of doing that? And that's the heart of a great city. It's not "We're going to do this and we're going to move everyone out." It's "No, we care about folks in the process." I love that.
Are you glad you came home?
Sometimes. It is weird coming back after being gone for 20 years, but the short answer is yes. As I see old friends and family and see what's been done, it's pretty neat. We never felt at home at any other place until we came to Columbus, and now for some reason we feel like this truly is home, and it's nice.
Name: Grant Scarborough
Job: Physician, founder of MercyMed of Columbus. There are two clinics, one on Second Avenue and the other at Steam Mill Road and Buena Vista Road.
Education: Brookstone School, 1990; University of Georgia, bachelor's degree in biology, 1994; Mercer School of Medicine, 2003.
Family: Wife: Anne, married 18 years; four daughters: Jane, 13; Anita, 11; Jessie, 10; and Mary Piper, 6.