|COATS, N.C.—Donald Sutton, 34, kept his watch cap on as he made his way through the parking lot at Coats United Methodist Church, nursing a bad tooth. The hood on his cotton sweatshirt rested on his back and kept off the autumn chill.
As he entered the social hall of the Rev. Rick Wilkerson’s church, Sutton looked over his shoulder at the two medical dental units idling along one side of the lot, a mobile clinic that would serve up to 100 people before the team called it a day. The units could pass for RVs except for the colorful lettering on the side proclaiming the vehicles as Medical Dental Ministry.
His first time at the clinic, Sutton didn’t know what to expect but his wife urged him to take advantage of the ministry of the North Carolina Baptist Men and by early afternoon, volunteer dentist James S. McKenzie examined Sutton.
Sutton learned he needed a cavity filled and suffered from gum disease, but he rejoiced, nonetheless, thanking the team, beaming his brilliant smile, and repeating, “It’s a blessing. It’s a blessing for those who can’t see a dentist on a regular basis.”
Just one of the volunteer dentists, McKenzie said he is Presbyterian volunteering at a United Methodist Church and working with a Baptist ministry.
After working on Sutton, McKenzie, lowered his face mask and said, his smile almost as wide as Sutton’s, “Glad we could help.”
That’s the spirit behind a ministry that began 22 years ago when the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina initiated its first medical dental unit, a 1989 Bluebird bus fitted to provide free medical and dental care.
“No one had thought about that need,” recalls Richard Brunson, the youthful executive director of NC Baptist Men in Cary, N.C. “But we did and we help about 4,500 people each year.”
The Baptist men are best known for the yellow T-shirts more than 12,000 trained volunteers wear as they assist in disaster relief but the medical dental units are another vital part of Baptists on Mission, more than a motto, a passion for Brunson and his team.
In late 2011 the ministry unveiled a $400,000 state-of-the-art Lifeline Mobile unit stuffed with another $50,000 of medical/dental equipment to provide no-cost care for the poor of North Carolina. Gifts from dentists and others along with grants paid for the unit, 40-feet of diesel-powered, high-tech quality care.
While the engines chugged-chugged outside the colorful unit, Joanne Honeycutt, unit coordinator, adjusted her blue cloth face mask to hold the hand of Cara Cotchen, 25, who had to have a tooth removed. Tears rolled gently down Cotchen’s face as Honeycutt cooed her support.
Earlier Cotchen, who attends both Clyde’s Chapel in Wendell, N.C., and Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, worked as a volunteer to help others find dental care at the unit. She made the hour drive and received the no-cost care in Coats, too.
A member of the medical dental unit for nearly eight years, Honeycutt helps the patients with medical care along with spiritual hope. As Honeycutt talked to Cotchen, “The Jesus Film” played nearby on a flat-screen TV. The scene of a blind man is on and the character says, “I can see.”
Volunteer Bailey Stevens, who hopes to someday be a dentist, assisted another patient.
“Not only do we provide dental care, we want to provide the Gospel as well,” she said, her pony-tail swishing as she glided around the cabin. “The film is part of our ministry.”
Volunteer David Braswell of Nashville, N.C., drove the bus to Coats from the Cary, N.C., area while his wife, Rachel, met patients as the unit hostess. Other volunteers helped with the screening, food service, child care and the other logistics needed to provide a day of medical and dental care.
Sporting a dark Campbell University baseball cap, Wilkerson, pastor of Coats United Methods Church, walked around the social hall greeting patients.
“We love to take care of folks in our community,” Wilkerson said. “We love the Baptists. It’s a very good relationship.”
Typically churches such as Coats United Methodist pay the expenses for the unit to come to the venue including the mileage and help with the appointments and screening. Two years ago, about 150 patients took advantage of the old unit when it came to Coats, Wilkerson said. Today both the old 1989 unit and the new unit hummed bumper to bumper in a full-scale medical and dental care marathon. The cost for a day of care usually runs an organization about $100 to $300, Honeycutt said.
By year’s end the 1989 unit will be housed at Truett Baptist Association near Murphy, in Western N.C.; the new unit will be the workhorse and worthy of the challenge.
Honeycutt is proud of the equipment and praised Lifeline Mobile of Columbus, Ohio, for the way it fashioned the build-in monitors, electronic awnings, the side walls that can be deployed with a button.
The unit also features a digital x-ray system connected to a personal computer, comfortable chairs and more.
“I really like the trash can,” laughed perky Stevens as she showed off the dental work area. “It seems kind of crazy but in the other unit, we had to have a little trash can and we’d have to kick it around. This one is built-in.”
As Sutton received treatment and he laughed about his face feeling numb, Pastor Wilkerson reported that five patients request some spiritual help. Stevens also said she met a woman recovering from breast caedncer.
“She was so thankful for what we could do for her,” Stevens said, pausing. “It was a blessing to me. A lot of time I get blessed as much as they do.’”
--Michael Ray Smith