A triangle drawn on the map of Missouri directed St. Louis native Tony Cook and his family to the mid-Missouri town of Fayette. There, in a local church, Cook found his calling.
At the points of Cook’s triangle were three Missouri cities with university medical clinics. In the middle was Fayette, a town with a population of 2,800 and a large university clinic, and so Fayette became his new home. Cook came to Fayette with his wife and son in 1994.
But five years later, something happened that helped Cook find a greater purpose. In 1999, the First Christian Church of Fayette, Cook’s church home, received a grant for $300,000 from Boone and Howard Hospice to start a health ministry program. Cook and five others stepped forward and formed a health cabinet to take charge of the program.
“There was a call, and we answered it,” Cook said.
“It’s the root of our faith,” he said. “It is integral to promote health within the church for a holistic wellness.”
In 2000, Cook received training as a parish nurse through the International Parish Nurse Resource Curriculum offered through Deaconess Parish Nurse Ministries in St. Louis.
According to the International Parish Nurse Resource Center, parish nursing is a health-promotion and disease-prevention ministry based on the care of the whole person, encompassing functions such as integration of faith and health.
Typically, parish nurses are registered nurses working on the staff of congregations and faith-based organizations to provide health education, health counseling, advocacy, referrals and support to the community.
Dick Millspaugh, director of chaplaincy services at Boone Hospital, said parish nurses and health ministries “focus on helping people understand the direct connection between body, spirit and mind.” Millspaugh helps area churches start health ministry programs.
Unfortunately, the budget at First Christian Church did not include payroll for a parish nurse. That did not stop Cook and the health cabinet from leading a health ministry program.
Even though Cook has received the title of parish nurse, he does not work under that title. He and the other members of the health cabinet at the First Christian Church are all volunteers.
“There are unmet needs in a church,” Cook said. “You likely have many physical and mental health needs, like shut-ins.”
An average of 100 people attend church services every Sunday at First Christian. Forty percent of the church members are age 65 or older and do not have regular access to health care. Because of this, the health ministry program plays a large role in the health of the congregation.
As part of the program, Cook and five other members of the health cabinet tend to the needs of the congregation by offering blood pressure checks before church services, as well as CPR, first aid and fitness classes.
Tom Hackley, 43, a member of First Christian, said the health ministry program “has always been well received and a benefit to the church.”
“It’s something that nobody else in the community has been able to offer,” Hackley said. “Out-of-towners always seem to be amazed that we have something like this.”
Lisa Cook, Tony Cook’s wife, agrees that the health ministry has been an asset to the congregation.
“People who don’t get to the doctor regularly can get their blood pressure checked and sometimes get a little free medical advice,” she said.
This year, First Christian is celebrating the one-year anniversary of their new fitness room and library, which was funded by the grant.
“It’s awesome. It’s really great,” Lisa Cook said. “We’ve opened our church to the community.”
With two treadmills, four bikes and an open door, a core group of people ages 15 to 70, including a volunteer monitor, use the room daily.
Not only does the church offer free use of the equipment, the room is more convenient for some because the nearest fitness center is a 15-mile drive into Boonville.
Although the grant ran out in 2001, Tony Cook said little money is required for the health ministry to exist.
“We are labor-intensive,” he said. “We use more people power than dollar power.”