If you regularly attend local community meetings, there’s a chance you’ve run into the Rev. Jennifer Williams.
Williams, an ordained minister and nurse, manages Centra’s Congregation & Community Health program, which offers health training, information and other services to faith groups and neighborhood organizations.
Since stepping into the role last year, she has been the health system’s eyes and ears on the street, visiting local churches and working directly to support community outreach programs.
“This role is a wonderful marriage of medicine and ministry,” she said in an interview last month.
Much of her work focuses on providing local congregations with tools to keep their members healthy, including an assessment of their overall health needs. After surveying members to learn how often they visit a doctor, what type of medicine they are prescribed and what medical issues they suffer from, she will tailor her recommendations to their specific needs.
Centra also offers two programs aimed at helping worshipers begin or strengthen their own health ministries: one for registered nurses and another for parishioners with no prior medical training. The courses teach participants how to recognize the signs of diseases, create nutrition plans and connect fellow church-goers with local health resources.
“This really is a godsend,” Williams said. “Not a lot of hospitals have this.”
Williams, a native of Jamaica, can trace her interest in healthcare back to her time in the military. She served 27 years in the U.S. Air Force as a flight nurse and was deployed overseas during Operation Desert Storm.
“Whether I’m in ministry, or whether I was at work, it has always been important for me to be that person to provide support and education,” she said.
Since becoming the face of Centra’s community involvement last year, Williams has partnered with One Community, One Voice — a community support group made up of law enforcement officials, faith leaders and local residents. After a string of high-profile shootings in Lynchburg last year, the group launched a weekly summertime effort to visit the neighborhoods affected by violence.
The goal was to strengthen relationships between police and residents and to offer a time for community prayer. For organizer and pastor James Camm, it was a no-brainer to ask Williams to join and to bring along flyers detailing health information.
“Centra is the major player in healthcare in our community,” Camm said. “Their name is branded in Lynchburg, and to have someone representing them, giving out information, is critical. The more information we can give people, the healthier they can be.”
In addition to her role at Centra, Williams serves as a police chaplain.
Her path to the department began last year when she requested a police ride-along to better understand the reality of life in the city. She also asked to speak with Jim Whitaker, the department’s longest serving active police chaplain and a former mayor of Lynchburg.
Whitaker said he immediately was impressed with “her sincere and gentle spirit.” After learning about her military background, he sent a recommendation to then-Chief Raul Diaz to bring her on board as a new police chaplain.
When Diaz agreed, Williams jumped at the chance. She now is one of three chaplains, along with Whitaker and Keith Anderson, the director of the student health center at Liberty University. She is the first woman to serve in the role, according to Whitaker.
Every three weeks, she rotates assignments with the other chaplains. For the week she is on call, Williams carries a police radio and responds anytime an officer requests a meeting with a chaplain. The work can be challenging, she said, but has been equally as rewarding.
“There is something in chaplaincy called the ministry of presence,” she said. “And oftentimes, that’s what we do: you’re present, you’re interacting, you’re listening. That can be very helpful. It’s a unique type of support.”
Richard Chumney covers breaking news and public safety for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.