By Michael Miller
Samaritan Ministries Executive Vice President James Lansberry was reading an article several years ago that had what he calls a “throwaway” statistic: More than half of all childbirths in South Carolina were paid for by Medicaid.
That stat stuck with him.
“If Medicaid’s paying for that many childbirths, and we actually think that a child is created in the image of God, isn’t that a place where we as Christians can step in and say, ‘We can do this better’?” he asks.
But Christians haven’t stepped in—until now, and they’re being led by James and Theresa Lansberry and Samaritan Ministries.
The Morning Center maternity hospitals project is a natural development for both the Lansberrys, because they have eight children, and have miscarried seven “who we’re still waiting to meet”, and Samaritan Ministries because it’s about a Christian, non-governmental approach to health care.
The Lansberrys are fixtures at Samaritan. They joined in 1996 for a variety of reasons, but chief among them was the fact that the health care sharing ministry doesn’t share expenses related to abortion. Samaritan’s direct-sharing approach between members also appealed to them because of their strong stand that Christians should shoulder each other’s burdens and that such charity begins with the Church.
When a spot opened up on Samaritan’s Board of Directors in 1998, James decided to run. He was elected. After his first board meeting, founder and president Ted Pittenger, and newsletter editor Ray King, decided Samaritan would be better served by having him as a manager, and he was hired in February 1999.
Fast-forward a decade, and that “throwaway” statistic was still gnawing at James and Theresa. A frequent speaker at conferences on Christian charity, James started bringing the statistic up, talking about the need to “have a pro-life charitable birthing center next door to every abortion clinic in the country.”
When nobody else stepped forward to seize the idea and run with it, the Lansberrys started realizing that this “outlandish” idea wasn’t going to be something for someone else to start. It was for them.
“It’s important that when God puts something on your heart, you do not just walk away from it,” he says.
James and Theresa started doing more research on the topic and became more convinced that better maternity care for poor women was needed and that Christians should offer it. Medicaid simply wasn’t doing the job. Fewer doctors are accepting Medicaid patients because of its low reimbursement rates, giving pregnant poor women fewer, if any, options for quality care.
“The inner-city poor tend to be higher-risk pregnancies, I think, sometimes because of the limited access they have to prenatal care,” James says.
He and Theresa concluded that in order to offer—for free—a much better birthing experience to poor women than those women could get using Medicaid, a full-on maternity hospital would be needed.
“It needs to be full service,” James says. “There needs to be anesthesia and epidurals and all of the features that are necessary right on down to a neonatal intensive care unit. It’s going to have to be a hospital and not a birthing center.”
And it was going to have to be first class, offering women and their children focused care and amenities such as quality photography.
“Having given birth in a hospital, given birth at home, having had some great experiences and some not-so-great experiences, I’m excited about the opportunity to give individual care to women,” Theresa says. “And, over all of that, to have God’s name praised because of it. That’s the most important thing.”
Developing a full-service charitable maternity hospital was obviously going to be a time-consuming effort, but James was ready to devote his time to it even if it meant leaving Samaritan Ministries.
“We decided about a year ago that, in the absence of another sign from God to the contrary, we needed to step out in faith and do this, even if it meant leaving my job at Samaritan,” James says.
James’s skills would have been sorely missed at SMI. He has been instrumental in organizing Samaritan’s structure, guiding its policy and, in recent years, leading the public policy efforts to protect health care sharing ministries. His work was key, for instance, in the effort to gain an exemption from the new health care law’s individual mandate for health care sharing ministry members.
Samaritan president and founder, Ted Pittenger, though, decided that even if the project would be a change for Samaritan from only sharing health care needs, it also was in keeping with the ministry’s general charitable and pro-life goals. He encouraged James to make a presentation about the project to Samaritan’s leadership team and then to the Board of Directors.
The Board approved involvement in the project, meaning that James was enabled to continue working for Samaritan but also devote much of his time to the Morning Center.
James expects about 70 percent of his time to be devoted to the Morning Center. Much of his routine Samaritan work will be handled by “a really great staff” in the Public Policy department, he says. Also, in many situations, he will be able to represent both ministries—and advantage for both.
Creating the Morning Centers through Samaritan is an advantage.
“We’ll have the name of Samaritan Ministries behind us and have the benefit of not having to figure out how my family’s going to eat while we raise funds for this,” James says.
That family will be helpful, as well. The Lansberrys’ three older children—Moriah, 15; Samuel, 14; and Toby, 13—are now old enough to help with various aspects of the project, Theresa says.
“In some sense, there’s no way we could have done this sooner,” she says. “They’re all at a point where they can start using their gifts and developing them in ways that they haven’t before.”
Having a large family is a key way to affect society for Christ, the Lansberrys believe.
“God uses the picture of the arrow, and I always say having children is the best investment you can make in the future,” says Theresa. “Arrows were the long-distance weapons in ancient times. If you wanted to reach out and touch someone over a long distance, that was what you used. That was your battle weapon. That’s what children are. They’re the arrows you shoot off into the future.
“You have to think of them as an investment in the future, because you don’t get that return on the investment right away. It’s difficult work being a parent and it’s important that we don’t lose sight of that.”
Teaching children how to minister to others is important, James says.
“We’re getting to the point where my children are old enough to minister to other families as opposed to constantly needing to be ministered to by others,” he says. “It’s an exciting thing to see, to raise up little ones into big ones and then send them out by God’s grace to do what He calls them to.”
As 2011 wears on, James will be heading out to call on others to step up as well to help establish the first Morning Center.
“There’s a sense of urgency that we’re already starting too late,” Theresa says. “We have mothers, we have babies, we have senior citizens, we have the disabled who need medical help. We as Christians have neglected the original vision of helping the sick, helping the poor that the Christian hospitals had, and so there is that sense of urgency that it needs to start now, and God gave us the vision. Though it can be rather daunting, I’m excited to envision what He’s going to do.”