Principles of Deaconess Work: Need and Call

By the Rev. Starsky D. Wilson
president & CEO – Deaconess Foundation

After twenty years in leadership as the pastor and superintendent of the Evangelical Deaconess Home and Hospital, the Reverend Frederich Jens was asked to pen the “Principles of Deaconess Work.” This little manual was published by the Eden Publishing House at 1716 Choteau, here in St. Louis.  He began in his native tongue by establishing pillars. He said, “There are two fundamental reasons for the Deaconess work. The first, is the plain command of the Lord in His word...the second reason is the need and distress of our fellowmen.”

Need and Call. Even after 125 years, some things never change.      

In the spirit of our faith heritage, the mission of Deaconess Foundation is the improved health of the St. Louis metropolitan community and its people. NEED. This mission persists.  With a public health lens and orientation, today, we suggest that the health of a community is best measured by the well-being of its most vulnerable children.

Kids Count data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation reveals glaring disparities and great challenges for the health and well-being of young people in our region. Over the last decade, poverty rates have risen on both sides of the Mississippi for the nearly 624,000 kids in the St. Louis community. Today, one of every five children in Missouri and Illinois live below the poverty line.

But, all things are not equal.  While St. Louis city ranks dead last among Missouri’s 115 counties in a composite ranking of well-being, St. Charles County finishes second. In Madison County, Illinois 32% of all children live with the assistance of food stamps and in St. Louis County 4,292 cases of child abuse were reported in 2011. Our region ranks 9th in the nation in the number of youth murdered with guns, but only 22nd for adults with college degrees.  While the high school graduation rate in the Ladue School District is 97.9%, in East St. Louis’ its 64%.  Even in St. Charles - the region’s star for child well-being – 1,735 children and youth receive mental health services subsidized with public support.      

 “Deaconess Foundation envisions a community that values the health and well-being of all children and gives priority attention to the most vulnerable.” – CALL.

The question really is, “What does this actually look like?”  And the truth be told none of us have seen it up close.  We are limited to the glimpses of this vision we have been able to behold.  

We think it looks like the faces of the smiling children in The Deaconess Spirit book released last month: supported by loving adults and raised by caring parents.  We think it resembles the church gathered on Resurrection morning for the baptism of a little child or to hear the recital of Easter speeches. We catch a glimpse when a young professional without children, passes up a networking event to tutor neighborhood kids.  We think it looks like a business community strenuously supporting early childhood development and education, not because it’s good business, but because, it’s good for kids.  We’ve got a hunch that it resembles the miracle of a moral movement gathering, building and promoting policy that first asks the question...”Is it good for the children?”      

This is what we – at Deaconess – imagine the vision looks like. We recognize that this is what Walter Brueggemann would call an “alternative vision” for our children and community. But, we are convinced that this vision of Healing and Caring and Teaching is deeply rooted and wholly consistent with the vision of those who gathered in St. Peter’s Church at the corner of 14th and Carr Streets in the city of St. Louis 125 years ago and planted our beloved mission. 

(This blog is redacted from Rev. Wilson’s 125th Anniversary Address delivered April 22, 2014 at Eden Seminary)