When Dr. Sippel Moved into the Neighborhood

God has been wooing Emily Sippel. At first, it was through a high school science teacher who helped her fall in love with biology and consider becoming a doctor. Then it was through a scholarship that overcame her reluctance to attend the same college her mom had gone to. And after two years at that college, it was through a weeklong InterVarsity chapter camp where she was “determined not to have a spiritual experience”—but where God captured her heart anyway. 

In the summer after her junior year, it was through InterVarsity’s Urban Program in Philadelphia, which partnered with a Christian health clinic at the time. In the midst of the stress of applying for and thinking about med school, Emily hoped the Urban Program would deepen her commitment to a medical career.

“Having the opportunity to work with Christian doctors and see what God could do in the relationships they built with their patients was really how God convinced me that medicine was his plan for my life,” Emily says. “It was a very powerful experience. I went in to the summer with a lot of the self-doubt that every pre-med student has, but God changed my heart and gave me a passion that I wouldn’t otherwise have had.”

It took longer for Emily to become passionate about working in an urban setting. She didn’t plan on going back to Philly. But the stories she heard from those she worked with—stories of systemic injustice that limited people’s options—stuck with her. “I knew I couldn’t turn my back on what I’d learned,” she says.

God led her back to Philly the summer after her first year of medical school at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, this time to work with a program called the Summer Medical Institute. She did blood pressure screenings and HIV-testing but also learned how to address people’s spiritual needs in the context of healthcare.

And Emily sensed her own heart being changed by God. Living in a different part of Philly from those she was serving began to weigh on her. Once she returned to Baltimore, the pull to move to the under-resourced neighborhood where she went to church became stronger.

In the December of Emily’s second year of med school, Urbana 2000 helped her accept the decision she knew she needed to make. “At Urbana, God absolutely affirmed his call on my life to always live among the people I was serving, no matter where that was,” she says. Seminars also provided practical principles for urban ministry. But, even more, Urbana 2000 opened her eyes to the bigger picture of life with Jesus—one that helped her set proper expectations for long-term faithfulness to God’s call on her life.

Urbana 2000 opened her eyes to the bigger picture of life with Jesus—one that helped her set proper expectations for long-term faithfulness to God’s call on her life.

“The biggest theme of Urbana that year for me was self-sacrifice—that following Jesus always means dying to self over and over,” she says. “I came away from Urbana wondering if I could keep choosing that. I had a lot to learn about what self-sacrifice was. But I was also very excited and encouraged about moving into the neighborhood and starting to take steps in that direction right away.”

Emily has been in her neighborhood for 14 years now. And there have indeed been sacrifices. As an introvert, she has had to push herself to overcome her fear of rejection and initiate relationships with her neighbors. The kind of reaching out and intentionality that’s required to earn the trust of others has taken particular courage, energy, and faith for her.

And loving others has caused grief she would not otherwise have known. The death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police in April of this year brought to the surface deep historical wounds that many in Baltimore bear. “The hardest thing for me was seeing the city’s pain manifested so visibly,” she says. The morning after one particularly significant protest, Emily drove past two cars that had been burned. “I was surprised and just started crying. It was weeks before I got through that deep grief experience.”

Her work as a family practice doctor at a very diverse clinic can also be taxing. “Walking with people who have suffered so much and engaging in that suffering is emotionally draining and challenging,” she explains. “If you combine that with the time pressures and needing to keep moving—it’s hard to be in that crucible. I usually finish the day feeling like I didn’t do a good enough job loving people. It keeps me on my knees. I’m always aware that I can’t do my job without Jesus.”

But, as Emily lives out God’s call on her life, there is also deep joy. “Hands down, my favorite part of my work is being able to build relationships with people and walk with them through life. To earn their trust and provide a safe space where they can share things they don’t share with anyone else. It’s an incredible privilege to hear people’s life stories and encourage them as often as I can,” she says.

Relationships with neighbors have brought joy as well. “Being a neighbor is about learning to be present in peoples’ lives without an agenda,” Emily explains. “I’m really humbled by the way people love each other, the sacrifices they make for their families.”

She sees her singleness as an asset to the life God has called her to, in part because she’s had to learn to rely on others for help. It has also helped her understand what it feels like to be marginalized—something most of her neighbors have experienced on a much greater scale. And she has been free to invest in others. “I know for a fact that God could not have used me in the ways that he has if I had gotten married or had kids,” Emily says. “I wouldn’t have time and energy to invest in high school girls at my church or help a neighbor. The freedom and flexibility have been a blessing.”

“I know for a fact that God could not have used me in the ways that he has if I had gotten married or had kids,” Emily says. “I wouldn’t have time and energy to invest in high school girls at my church or help a neighbor. The freedom and flexibility have been a blessing.”

In the challenges and in the joys, the call to self-sacrifice at Urbana 2000 still rings true for Emily, and is itself both a challenge and a blessing. “At Urbana you’ll hear from national and international leaders who have been serving in the kingdom for a long time who will challenge you in very deep ways to lay down your life for Jesus,” she says. It’s a challenge Emily accepts every day, out of love for the God who first loved us and has called us to clinics and neighborhoods and cities where people need to know his love.

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