When Portia Gibbs, a 48-year-old mother of two, had a heart attack in Belhaven last July, the ambulance that responded to her husband’s 911 call had to follow a new protocol. Six days earlier, the local Pungo Vidant Hospital, where an ambulance would have normally taken Gibbs, had closed its doors. Under new orders, EMTs drove her to Northside High School and waited in the parking lot for a medical helicopter. When it arrived an hour later, Gibbs was dead.
Eleven months after Gibbs’ death, we stood this week with Barry Gibbs and his community in Belhaven to begin The Walk from NC to DC. As Christian ministers, we stand regularly with communities to remember precious human lives and grieve their losses. But this was not a normal memorial service because God did not call Portia Gibbs home. She did not simply die because it was “her time.”
Portia Gibbs was killed by political extremism.
If something does not change in state capitols and corporate boardrooms throughout this country, thousands more like her will die this year.
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Gibbs was, in fact, the first victim of the first rural hospital to close its doors after federal funding was cut off by state governments’ refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Established by the Hill-Burton Act, a 1947 bipartisan agreement to provide critical access hospitals to rural Americans, Belhaven’s hospital was the first of hundreds like it to open its doors in 1949. Thanks to 21st century political extremism and corporate greed, it was also the first to close.
Adam O’Neal, the Republican mayor of Belhaven – a red town in a red county – reached out to fellow Republicans in Raleigh for help to save his community’s hospital last summer, after the board of Vidant Health System voted to close its doors. This hospital had survived a 500-year record storm surge during Hurricane Fran, but it could not withstand the perfect storm of political extremism and corporate greed. Belhaven’s representatives in Raleigh said there was nothing they could do.
So Mayor O’Neal reached out to the NAACP branches in Beaufort and Hyde counties – majority poor and minority counties that the hospital was built to serve. Since 2006, North Carolina’s NAACP has been building a diverse fusion coalition of black, white and brown, old and young, labor and civil rights, gay and straight, environmentalists and health care advocates committed to a moral agenda that focuses not on single issues but on the good of the whole.
Belhaven’s crisis makes clear that the most dangerous lie of today’s extremists is their assertion that immoral policies hurt only some people. With veiled racial language, they have attacked “Obamacare” as an entitlement program, suggesting that poor people of color do not deserve handouts from a black president. But O’Neal and the people of Belhaven see through this lie. Portia Gibbs was a white woman in a Republican town. Without a hospital, she died just the same as anyone else.
Forsaking party allegiance for the sake of a moral agenda, O’Neal crossed race lines to partner with the NAACP for The Walk from NC to DC, a 283-mile journey to highlight the fact that 283 rural hospitals are scheduled to close this year if Congress and the president do not act to overcome the interposition of those who refuse to accept federal funding through the ACA. When we began the walk in Belhavan on Monday, Barry Gibbs rang a bell, sounding an alarm that these walkers are taking across the back roads of rural North Carolina and Virginia, and throughout the nation with their call to #savethe283.
Like the tolling from old church steeples, Gibb’s bell was a call to remember his wife, Portia, gone too soon. But it was also a clarion call to watch this fusion coalition working for the common good in a place where people have so often been divided by race, class and party.
Like the March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery March 50 years ago, The Walk from NC to DC offers a picture of the America we must become. But this fusion coalition is only one of scores of grassroots, locally led efforts in places where real people are directly affected by extremism. While it may not make the nightly news in the same way Selma did, The Walk from NC to DC is a national news story – not only because the loss of rural health care affects us all, but also because coalitions like this one are laying the groundwork for a new Moral Movement in America.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is president of the NC NAACP and architect of the Forward Together Moral Movement. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove directs the School for Conversion in Durham