Rhonda and Ken Blackburn in their Sojourn House apartment in Houston (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews)
Rhonda and Ken Blackburn in their Sojourn House apartment in Houston (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews)

Cancer patients 'Sojourn' in Houston

South Main Baptist Church ministry provides affordable, caring housing to out-of-town cancer patients.

By Jeff Brumley

Imagine being 800 miles from home receiving radiation treatments while bouncing from hotel to hotel – or having to live out of a car or hospital lobby. Thanks to a housing ministry of Houston’s South Main Baptist Church, Kentuckian Rhonda Blackburn doesn’t worry about living arrangements while being treated for pancreatic cancer in Texas.

“You can’t measure what that means,” Blackburn, 58, said of Sojourn House, a group of 16 apartments for out-of-town patients of Houston’s famous medical complexes. The one-bedroom units rent for $39 a day, are fully furnished and include utilities and cable television.

“This place is set up,” said Rhonda Blackburn’s husband, Ken. “You bring your clothes and get some food for the kitchen and there’s no lease -- you leave when you want to leave.”

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Sojourn House, which leases its units from a privately owned apartment complex, is part of a coalition of similar ministries run by a total of 10 churches in the city. The Church Apartment Ministry is comprised of South Main Baptist and Church of Christ, Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian congregations providing about 65 apartments altogether.

Each of the members refer potential residents to each other when one group doesn’t have a vacancy, said Ken Hamilton, a volunteer director of Sojourn House.

The larger apartment ministry is run from an office at South Main Baptist, staffed by volunteers from that and other churches. Roughly 150 South Main members volunteer for the Sojourn House ministry, including Sunday school classes arranging welcome packages and gift bags. Others clean the units to standards meant to aid those with immune systems damaged by cancer treatments.

But the volunteers are helped as much as the visiting patients, Hamilton said. “I get a lot of witness myself just seeing people, who are probably at the worst point of their life, turn things over to the Lord,” he said.

Sojourn House is an effort to serve Christ by serving those experiencing severe challenges in life, said Steve Wells, the pastor at South Main Baptist.

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“It is an intentional ministry of Christian hospitality,” Wells said. “It is to serve ‘the least of these’ by caring for people in Jesus’ name.”

A related ministry with the same focus is Friends of Sojourn, whose volunteers adopt residents to help ease their transition to life in Houston. They do that by praying for the residents daily and by contacting them at least once a week. Many go further by delivering gifts, food and various necessities, said Paul Falls, a Sojourn House volunteer director.

Sojourn House was founded at least four decades ago by a church member who noticed people living in hospital lobbies and in cars as they visited Houston for medical treatment. “We’ll still get people living in cars and lobbies,” Falls said. “But it’s better than it used to be.”

Sojourn House residents testify to that, and often describe the ministry as divinely inspired.

Fred Bridge of New Jersey has been undergoing chemo therapy for lung and liver tumors for two months and began his stay in Houston with uncertainty about his living arrangements. Bridge would be in a hotel for a night or two and then get bumped because a big event in Houston. Fed up, he asked the concierge at MD Anderson what to do, and Bridge, 72, was referred to Sojourn House.

“It’s the grace of God,” said Bridge, who is Catholic. “I was getting thrown from hotel to hotel.”

Rhonda Blackburn said she learned about Sojourn House through an encounter in a hospital cafeteria with a South Main church member also undergoing cancer treatment. Blackburn, who’s Baptist, sees that encounter as God acting in her life.

The Brompton Court Apartments, where Sojourn House leases the units, is located just a few miles from MD Anderson and other Houston hospitals and treatment centers. A shuttle leaves the complex every 15 minutes for the medical complex.

Sitting in a recliner just a few hours after a radiation treatment, Blackburn said Sojourn House takes the sting out of being away from home while fighting cancer. “You can just be relaxed,” she said.