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House calls to the homeless

Charity | Missionary doctor Ken McMillan is a one-man ministry among Native Americans in Minnesota

Issue: "Cellblock campaign," Dec. 23, 2006

It's a classic missionary story-dedicated doctor packs his clinic into a bag and bikes to secluded places to provide basic medical care to isolated people in the name of Jesus. But this story has a twist. Dr. Ken McMillan is indeed serving tribal people, but he is in Minneapolis, working among homeless Native Americans.

In 1996, McMillan and his family were forced by war to leave their mission work in Congo (then Zaire). Since they hoped for an early return, McMillan didn't want to get started in private practice in the United States.

Then he met the Rev. Gordon Thayer, Native American founder of Kola (Ojibwe for "friend"). Kola is a Minneapolis program for Native homeless persons, with a daytime drop-in center providing multiple services. Hennepin County had approved funding for improved health services, and Thayer persuaded McMillan that even six months or a year of his time would enormously help this needy population.

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At first, his patients couldn't believe the quiet white man was really a doctor. Who'd ever seen a physician in a puffy down jacket sitting around in a homeless camp? But the pharmacies honored his prescriptions, so he had to be OK.

After seven years with Kola, McMillan spends fewer hours on his bike and more in the Kola van or in his small office in the Kola drop-in center where he sees 10-15 patients a day, three days a week. If he ever had a spare $50,000, he'd buy a used van and refit it as a mobile clinic so patients could consult with him privately, wherever he finds them-and warmly in a Minnesota winter.

Officially the work week is 32 hours. But as the only physician in Minneapolis reaching out specifically to homeless individuals, he's always on call. When his cell phone rings, he interrupts to answer, because his clients are seldom reachable for callbacks.

If he had his way, he wouldn't be unique. Every year he spends a few hours with 10-12 second-year medical students, who observe his work in his office and in a homeless camp. They see firsthand the higher rates of diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure among homeless persons, and the fallout of addictions. Later, the students follow up with a project to help Kola's health services. One year it was small first aid kits in waist packs. Another time it was the creation of a large-print, simple pocket booklet of health instructions for common ailments and injuries.

Kola is funded by various private and government grants. Since this means no proselytizing, do people know that McMillan's service is in the name of Jesus? He answers this question, "I speak in one-on-one situations mainly. At the end of a health consultation, I might ask, 'Do you want prayer for this?' The answer is usually yes. Then I ask, 'May I do it, or do you want to go to one of your tribal elders?' Always they say, 'You.' So I pray and share a verse."

McMillan notes that most patients "have heard [the gospel] in a twisted version. They associate Christianity with legalism and racial insensitivity. Christianity was poisoned for lots of Native people because of its association with boarding schools that tried to separate Indians from their cultural heritage."

McMillan recalls a man who came to his knees spiritually and began to go to church-until his past of anger, drinking, and cocaine overcame him and sent him to jail, where he now is. The doctor prays that the man will remember what he learned and talk to God daily.

McMillan recalls eternal fruit gained through his labors: "I met Eric in a camp by the tracks. Eventually he decided to stay sober and began to talk about his spirit. He was a Canadian Creek and strong in tribal spirituality. . . . He professed faith in Christ, and came back a new person, trying to help people. Four months later he was beaten to death with baseball bats."

It's a classic missionary story-a story of persistence and prayer, of seeing saints die in the Lord, and of waiting to see God continue the work He has begun in a life.

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