City compassion
A guest at Downtown Compassion 2013 learns about services available to him. (Benjamin Downing)

The parking lot should have been empty. It was cold; the desert chill clung to the pavement.

But the headlights from pastor Randy Deal’s car caught the outline of people lined up and huddled close together. It was 6 a.m. Saturday morning, two hours before the doors to the local K-8 school in a suburb of Phoenix were due to open.

These people are desperate, Deal thought.

But those desperate people weren’t alone. Randy and his wife soon saw the Compassion Queen Creek organizing committee had sprung into action, making an emergency run to a local coffee shop and distributing a last-minute donation of hot oatmeal and steaming cups of coffee.

Deal realized hope had hands and feet that day. Hope came through a handful of local churches banding together to become the church, walking out the truth of the gospel in a tangible way.

A Clinic With a Heart

The “guests” were residents of Queen Creek, a neighborhood of middle-class homes shocked and beaten by the sudden and vicious downturn in the economy in 2006. This was Arizona, epicenter and poster child for the collapse of the real-estate bubble.

“We are one of the hardest-hit areas in the country for foreclosures,” says Jennelle Esquivel, co-chair along with her husband of Compassion Queen Creek. “A whole group of people who had never known poverty were faced with huge challenges. These are families that two years before were actually very wealthy. They didn’t know how to live without health insurance, without food on the table.”

Compassion Queen Creek follows a model laid out by Compassion Connect, a nondenominational nonprofit group founded in Portland, Ore., in 2006. Downtown Compassion in Portland has become a huge event each July with upwards of 300 volunteers descending upon Veterans Memorial Coliseum to guide hundreds of guests through haircuts, dental services, medical checkups, prayer stations and a food court—all for free. The goal is to bless the guests and live out the gospel.

Pastor Deal, a pharmacist by trade, gave hundreds of blood sugar tests that day he saw the early morning line of people in the parking lot. One overweight guest in his mid-40s was going to have to get his legs amputated in three months if he didn’t get care. He came in with his wife and kids, who were treated too. His blood sugar levels were through the roof.

“He knew that he was diabetic, but he couldn’t afford his insulin,” Deal says. “We got him a supply of donated insulin. I saw him the next year, and he still had his feet.”

Some state dental associations hold annual clinics. But as medical and dental volunteers explain, a Compassion Clinic is different. You can pray with people at a Compassion Clinic. And the whole apparatus—right from calling people “guests” instead of “clients” to matching each person with a personal guide to feeding them a high-quality lunch—is designed to make people feel honored and loved.

Other things make Compassion Clinics different too. Church unity is a core value of the organization. No matter how many volunteers or amount of money an individual church contributes to the effort, no one church gets credited. Everything is offered anonymously. It’s through one-on-one interaction between believers who volunteer alongside non-Christian volunteers and guests that personal transformation takes place.

A Transforming Center

Take Robin Rigutto, for example. A dental hygienist, she was attending a church outside Portland five years ago when she saw a tiny notice in a church bulletin in asking for people with dental and medical skills to volunteer.

“I was a closet Christian,” she says. “I knew I believed, but I wasn’t loud about it.”

Rigutto was the only dental hygienist at the first clinic she attended, and she served 16 people that day.

“By the time I left that day, I couldn’t wait for the next clinic,” she says. “It was such a wonderful thing that happened. It was nothing specific. It was the people that came in. Those who had the least gave the most. People that didn’t have anything were trying to give a $5 bill out of their pocket to a dentist.”

Soon she was asked to manage the dental section at a Compassion Clinic event. She was terrified, but her first clinic as dental director came off well.

A pastor from a local church volunteered one year. He was very skeptical and voiced his doubts that a once-a-year clinic could do any good. By the same time next year, he took over managing the whole event.

Rigutto and the pastor became friends. One day after a committee meeting, he told Rigutto he and some friends were having a group baptism.

“I want to come—I need to be baptized,” she told him.

She says now, “After working with this group for a couple of years, I knew it was what I had to do. I know now why I’m here on earth. Helping people, being there for people that need something I can give. It’s amazing. Everyone pulls together. All doctors want is a handshake or a pat on the back.”

Rigutto has seen a lot of miracles. One year, an older woman got a crown on one of her teeth. The woman told them she’d come in that day expecting to lose a tooth and now she was going to her grandson’s baseball game with a brand-new smile.

“We gave her back her dignity,” Rigutto says. “There was another guy who didn’t have any front teeth, and they made a partial for him and took pictures of him with this great big grin.”

Rigutto describes the feeling she gets working at a clinic with other Christians as a “warm, cozy feeling.”

What about the spiritual impact of the clinic on her city?

There’s a pause in the conversation. Then she says, “If I’m the only soul that was saved, I feel good about that.”

The clinic has transformed Rigutto forever—and as a volunteer, not a guest. The effect of a Compassion Clinic ripples across the community and church.

“We believe this is a move of the Spirit worldwide,” says Milan Homola, executive director of Compassion Connect. “People are drawn to the concept of churches working together. It’s time for local unity—not just spiritual unity of the universal church, but local neighborhood unity.”

A Faith-Filled Outreach

Homola met Christ in college. After moving to Portland, he joined a church doing medical missions in Mexico. Some of the participants began to wonder why they weren’t ministering to needy people in their own backyards.

Homola and his pastor, Gary Tribbett, now president of Compassion Connect, began talking.

“We felt like we were in way over our heads but God was miraculously opening doors,” Homola says. “The first doctor to step over the line said, ‘These guys are crazy. They don’t know what they’re doing. But I’ll help.’”

After their first clinic ended, that same doctor sold his suburban clinic, bought a house in a low-income neighborhood and opened a nonprofit, faith-based community health center.

In 2006, Compassion Connect offered its first Compassion Clinic. The Rockwood neighborhood of Gresham, Ore., has no large churches, so 12 churches combined to minister to a small, hurting neighborhood.

“Out of necessity we worked together to reach the community,” Homola says. “There were no church names on any banners. All we said is, ‘We’re Christians, we love Jesus, and we want to serve you.’”

A Compassion Clinic is a faith-filled outreach. The clinic meets people’s most basic physical needs. There is usually a prayer booth for guests to receive ministry, but a Compassion Clinic is set up for guests to get their spiritual needs met in the one-on-one interactions they have with volunteers. And with each guest getting their own personal volunteer host to walk with them through the whole day, there’s lots of room for conversation.

Controlling people is not a part of the deal. With hundreds of volunteers at the average clinic, it’s impossible to vet everyone. And if people are declined as volunteers, it eliminates an important avenue for God to work.

“No one signs a faith statement to volunteer,” Homola says. “Volunteers get impacted and witnessed to as much as guests. We don’t have an us-versus-them mentality. I’d say 25 percent of health care volunteers have no connection to faith or church.”

A Sprawling Movement

When it comes to sharing the model with other churches in other areas, it’s the germination stage that Homola says is most critical—when someone sees a need and finds like-minded people in other local churches who want to meet that need.

“We make sure the DNA from the beginning is Christ-centered,” he says. “Our requirement is that it be multi-church. We help build the core team so that from day one, as they build out the steering committee and plan logistics and recruit volunteers, that at its core, everything is centered on Jesus Christ.”

A steering committee usually includes a dozen people. The time span from the first spark of an idea to the actual day of the clinic is about five months. Compassion Connect received a grant to build a detailed kit that they sell for $99 that gives newbies help for almost every detail, from marketing to budgeting to dental equipment wash-up procedures.

Of the roughly 300 volunteers needed to pull off a clinic, 40 to 50 are health professionals. The biggest team by far is hospitality—people who act as guides and serve food and make guests feel welcome.

Recruiting of dentists is the hardest part and all depends on relational networks. Often it takes only one dentist or dental hygienist to sign up, and then they go to their network and fill it up. Compassion Connect has purchased a handful of dental stations, including chairs and lamps, that they loan to clinics.

It takes roughly $8,000 to run a full-day clinic, and shipping charges make up a large portion of this cost, as does the cost of renting the facility.

Dental aid accounts for up to 90 percent of the services provided at any of the clinics. If a steering committee can’t pull off a full-blown clinic, it is encouraged to emphasize the dental aspect.

It’s not hard, on the other hand, to find medical staff. Homola says nurse practitioners are just as valuable in this environment.

“It’s pretty low-key on the medical side of things,” he says.

When it comes to guidance on developing a Compassion Clinic, the Compassion Connect kit provides core principles, a sample guest traffic flow, and best practices for the dental, medical and other areas. But there is a lot of room to customize a clinic based on the community and the skills and connections of the team.

For instance, in Arizona, the team secured excellent buy-in from the business community, and they were able to build a food court with free food from major restaurant chains.

Compassion Clinics tap into the skills and passions of entrepreneurs and people with the gift of administration, plus doctors, dentists, pharmacists and others who might not feel the things they’re valued for the rest of the week have a place at church on the weekend.

But Marc Estes, pastor of the large, multisite City Bible Church in Portland, thinks these skills are exactly what the church needs. City Bible Church is the driving force behind Downtown Compassion that serves Portland’s downtown core.

“The heartbeat of the Father isn’t just all about you and me having a deep relationship,” Estes says. “It’s also about me being able to speak to you about the widows and the orphans. We want the gospel to be preached. We want people saved. But 46 times in the gospels, Jesus met a need before He preached.”

Last year, 17 communities ran Compassion Clinics. It isn’t hard to understand why Compassion Connect would love to see that number grow even more. 

Andrew Douglas is a freelance writer and a second-year student at Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry. He lives in Redding, Calif., with his wife, three kids and a border collie and he blogs at

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