Member Spotlight: Les and Christine Riley of the Morning Center

Michael Miller  ·  Nov 01, 2015

One of the poorest places in the nation is one of the richest fields for sharing the Gospel and helping mothers and their babies.

Les Riley, executive director of the Memphis Morning Center, is there to help both happen.

“There’s a great deal of need, but also a great deal of hope,” says Les, who started in the position at the beginning of 2015. “The people in places like Warren, they know they have a mess. They’re very open about it, very honest.”

“Warren” is Warren Apartments, a government-subsidized housing complex that sits in a part of Memphis, Tennessee, that resembles a third-world country, Morning Center officials say. But the Morning Center, which offers free, high-quality maternity care, has been reaching out to residents in that and other poor Memphis neighborhoods for two years, providing dozens of women and babies with top-notch maternity care and delivery services.

Les was a natural to head up the Morning Center. Although he had mainly made his living as a farmer and a salesman, he has been heavily involved in pro-life activities since he became a Christian in 1991, doing sidewalk counseling, helping to open a crisis pregnancy center, and leading a successful drive to get a personhood amendment to the Mississippi constitution on the ballot (the amendment was voted down).

He also was one of the first people to encourage Samaritan Ministries to put a Morning Center in Memphis, by putting its founders in touch with pro-life workers in the region who could help build support.

“Les has been a big fan of the Morning Center and our distinctives of private charity and Gospel-centered ministry from the get-go,” says James Lansberry, Samaritan executive vice president and one of the founders of the Morning Center.

Les says he “saw the desperate need” for something like the Morning Center in Memphis.

“Memphis is a bit of an abortion mecca, because it sits in the corner of Tennessee near Mississippi and Arkansas, and both of those states have stricter abortion regulations than Tennessee,” Les says.

He says 8,500 abortions per year are performed there. That statistic, plus the city’s high infant and maternal mortality rate, make Memphis a natural place for the Morning Center to offer the Gospel and maternity services.

Les oversees four Morning Center clinics, which are scattered around Memphis. Having different locations makes it easier for moms to get to appointments in a city where it’s hard for poor people to get around.

“We serve in a number of inner-city neighborhoods and, by and large, it’s African-American and Hispanic, but that’s not everybody we serve,” Les says. The Morning Center has found the opportunity recently to reach out to Muslims as well as refugee populations.

But Memphis is no different than any other city in its needs and as a mission field:

“It’s an area that has been conquered by the loving rule of Jesus Christ, and He’s in the process of setting all things right,” Les says. “Most of the people are not living in light of that right now, but we have the opportunity to step in and be an instrument to advance His Kingdom in areas that He has already conquered. So I think in that degree that Memphis is a very hopeful place.”

Les and his wife, Christine, have been trying to be instruments of Christ in Memphis for more than 20 years. They have routinely stood, for instance, outside of Planned Parenthood abortion clinics, praying and offering counseling.

“Generally I just try to be there and reach out to share the Gospel with anybody who will listen, whether it’s a guard or employee or a patient,” Les says. “I try to talk to the men. But if not, I just call out to the women and tell them there are alternatives and talk to them about the law and love of Christ.”

One of those locations became an answer to prayer. An abortion clinic called the Memphis Area Medical Center for Women, a “real nasty place,” recently closed and was razed. Les attributes that to years of fervent prayer.

“Four generations of my family prayed outside that abortion clinic,” he says. “Maybe as many as 100,000 children were killed there. For 30 years, people, including 20-plus of my family, consistently prayed outside that abortion clinic that God would close it.”

Toward the end of 2013, He did. The building is now “a big hole in the ground.”

“It was exactly when God decided they had filled up the full measure of their sin,” Les says. “He answered the prayers of His people and now it’s gone.”

Les’s main responsibilities, though, are to manage the Memphis Morning Center, raise money, and to be a pastor to the patients and the staff—two doctors, a nurse practitioner, a registered nurse, two administrators, an ultrasound technician, and several medical and ministry volunteers.

“His job is to encourage them, disciple them, help them to see how the Gospel interacts with the patient’s life on a day-to-day basis,” James Lansberry says. “Les’s focus is on equipping them to be able to minister to others.”

Les says he doesn’t have much direct interaction with the patients themselves.

“I try to stay on my side of the wall,” he says with a laugh.

But, he adds, “We want it to be the same kind of experience a wealthy person from the suburbs would have—the best medical clinic in town if she had the money.”

“The way I tell my staff is, ‘Our goal is not to give them medical care and then hand them a tract on their way out the door,’” he says. “Our goal is to create a Gospel environment.

“The people come in, they’re greeted. We want our waiting room to be like grandma’s living room, where you really feel welcome. You can join in conversation. Our volunteers and staff try to find out what their needs are beyond just the medical care. ‘How did you get here?’ ‘What are your needs right now?’ We try to connect them with a church or ministry that meets those needs. We just try to build a relationship with them over whatever amount of time we have with them. Hopefully they’re going to hear the Gospel, but hopefully we’re going to live it as well.”