Richard and Johann Ellerbrake Continue Advocacy for CHHSM through Financial Gift

Johann and Dick Ellerbrake

The Rev. Richard Ellerbrake, long-time health and human services activist and advocate, and his wife, Johann, whose career has included serving as a physical therapist and in youth ministries, have provided a $3,000 Schwab Charitable grant to the UCC Council for Health and Human Service Ministries (CHHSM).

Dick Ellerbrake, president emeritus of Deaconess Health System in St. Louis — where he served as COO and then CEO from 1962 to 1992 — said he thought the timing was right for the charitable gift. CHHSM’s Annual Gathering “was in St. Louis this year, and I had the opportunity to attend,” he said. With CHHSM’s new leadership under President and CEO Jamar Doyle, Ellerbrake “wants to indicate support. It’s important to help CHHSM’s vital programs, and through good fortune and frugality, we are able to help,” he added.

Ellerbrake has spent his entire career serving others in the field of health and human service ministries, and all within the ministries of the UCC and one of its predecessor bodies, the Evangelical and Reformed Church (E&R). He first felt the call to this type of ministry in the early days of seminary at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Mo.  His fieldwork at Eden took him to Caroline Mission in St. Louis, now part of CHHSM member Unleashing Potential. Right before graduation, Henry Damm, western field secretary for the E&R Board of National Missions, encouraged Ellerbrake to go to Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss., as pastor-director.

Dr. Dave Campbell, founder, president, and CEO of iFM Community Medicine, and Dick Ellerbrake at an event for the St. Louis Crisis Nursery. | St. Louis Crisis Nursery photo

“I regarded this as a call,” said Ellerbrake. Four years later, he was asked by the then-chief executives of the Evangelical Deaconess hospitals in Chicago and St. Louis to join their staff and study to be a professional healthcare administrator. He went to the hospital in St. Louis, earning his master’s degree in healthcare administration and spending 30 years at Deaconess: 20 as COO and 10 as CEO. He also started the Deaconess family medicine residency, which evolved into iFM Community Medicine, and in 1989, Deaconess Nurse Ministry (formerly Deaconess Parish Nurse Ministries) to commemorate the centennial of the founding of the Deaconess Sisterhood and the Deaconess mission in St. Louis. 

Ironically, it was at Unleashing Potential’s Caroline Mission that the Ellerbrakes met. Johann was a student at Washington University in St. Louis majoring in physical therapy. She had a grant for tuition and books, but needed help with food and lodging. The local United Way office directed her to Caroline Mission. In exchange for leading programs and groups, she was able to live there. While at Caroline Mission, she discovered her own call to vocation, and met Richard, then a young seminarian.

Now retired, Johann Ellerbrake’s career included serving both church and community, as director of the Mamie O. Stookey School in Belleville, Ill., and, later, the Rankin Jordan Extended Pediatric Care Facility in Maryland Heights, Mo. While at Back Bay, she was involved in youth ministry and early childhood education. Johann also has served on the board of Hoyleton Youth & Family Services in Fairview Heights, Ill., and the UCC’s Illinois Conference, among others.

“CHHSM has played an important role for me,” she said. “I am grateful for the annual CHHSM meeting — we join with so many caregivers and providers. There is much to rejoice about because the mission [is] being carried out.”

The Rev. Starsky Wilson (Children’s Defense Fund), Dick Ellerbrake, and the Rev. Jerry Paul | Deaconess Foundation photo.

Dick Ellerbrake has been a regular participant in the activities of CHHSM for 65 years, and in a recent interview, remembered a particularly “standout event” from CHHSM’s history. Three leaders of CHHSM organizations — Ellerbrake; Carroll Olm, the first executive director and chaplain (1960-1990) of then-Fairhaven Retirement Community (Fairhaven Senior Services) in Whitewater, Wis.; and the Rev. Laverne Joseph, former president and CEO (1987-2017) of Retirement Housing Foundation in Long Beach, Calif. — “were successful in keeping CHHSM independent of the [UCC’s then-] Board for Homeland Ministries (BHM), whose executive wanted to take over the organization at that time and make it a part of BHM,” he said.

Ellerbrake also has been involved with legislative advocacy work. He helped stimulate the creation of the Patient Self Determination Act of 1990, which amended parts of Medicare and Medicaid to require hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, home health agencies, hospice programs, and health maintenance organizations to: (1) inform patients of their rights under State law to make decisions concerning their medical care; (2) periodically inquire as to whether a patient executed an advanced directive and document the patient’s wishes regarding their medical care; (3) not discriminate against persons who have executed an advance directive; (4) ensure that legally valid advance directives and documented medical care wishes are implemented to the extent permitted by State law; and (5) provide educational programs for staff, patients, and the community on ethical issues concerning patient self-determination and advance directives. 

While at Back Bay, he served as secretary to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Mississippi Advisory Committee and later chaired the Missouri Advisory Committee.

As with many organizations, Ellerbrake has seen CHHSM transform over time to meet current needs. “It seems to be that at least in some quarters, there is now more appreciation for the importance of collaboration, and how agencies related to the church can assist each other by working together to further the larger mission,” he said.  He continues to advocate for the importance of local church involvement in the UCC’s health and human service ministries. “As always,” he added, “I would like to see congregations of the United Church of Christ, and other denominations, more closely involved with health and human service organizations, the latter as a way of helping the Church to realize and fulfill its mission.”

He cites his work at Deaconess as an example. “The mission of Deaconess was ‘life of quality for all through value-centered healthcare and health education offered in the compassionate spirit of Jesus Christ.’ We were very much aware (though others are not always) that ‘health’ in its linguistic origin means ‘wholeness’ and ‘salvation,’” he said. “We have a common mission, CHHSM and the church, and that needs constant reiteration. Therefore, I think CHHSM has a role to play in this area — articulating that it is not merely providing a forum for the church-related health and huma service agencies, but that CHHSM is in fact The Church, just as its member agencies are also The Church.”

Today, four generations of Ellerbrakes live on Old Enterprise Farms in Lebanon, Ill.

Although retired, Ellerbrake continues to serve on countless CHHSM and UCC-related boards, including serving as chairman emeritus of iFM Community Medicine and on the boards of Cape Albeon, Good Samaritan, Inc., and St. Andrew’s Resources for Seniors System in St. Louis, and assists Uplands Village in Pleasant Hill, Tenn., among others.

Today, Dick and Johann Ellerbrake, along with four generations of their family, reside on Old Enterprise Farms in Lebanon, Ill. The farm began in 1972 with four Back Bay Mission friends and coworkers, and their families, who decided to live as part of the environment, become as independent as possible regarding the essentials of living, and learn how people and the earth can sustain each other. At the farm, this includes farming and gardening, and being good stewards of what grows on the land — including composting, making bar soap from hog lard, planting and growing trees, using solar panels and a geothermal system, recycling, and much more.

“Dick and Johann Ellerbrake are not only supporters and advocates of CHHSM, but also good friends to our organization,” said Jamar Doyle, president and CEO of CHHSM. “A true example of the old adage of ‘walking the talk,’ the Ellerbrakes continue to give back — to their community, to their friends, colleagues, and family, and to CHHSM. We are truly grateful for the enduring call and commitment of the Ellerbrakes, this time manifesting itself through their generous financial gift to CHHSM.”

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