Catholic Sentinel photos by Anita Kinney
Lisa Rohleder, a St. Charles Church parishioner, has created a community acupuncture model, rooted in Catholic social teaching.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Anita Kinney
Lisa Rohleder, a St. Charles Church parishioner, has created a community acupuncture model, rooted in Catholic social teaching.

At first glance, the bright building on the corner of Northeast Fremont and 57th Street may not look like a standard-bearer for Catholic ethics in healthcare. But as these issues are making national headlines, St. Charles Borromeo parishioner Lisa Rohleder is quietly preparing to open the third location of the community clinic she founded in 2002. When Working Class Acupuncture opens its doors in the Lents neighborhood this month, it will bring affordable, compassionate healthcare to even more people.

An acupuncturist, small business owner, author, and social entrepreneur, Rohleder is trying to transform acupuncture in the United States. At the same time, she’s developing an alternative approach to healthcare that’s heavily rooted in Catholic social teaching.

A cradle Catholic, Rohleder was born and raised in southwest Baltimore. Growing up, she wanted to become a doctor. After college, Rohleder joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest to gain experience working with patients before enrolling in medical school. As a Jesuit volunteer at Portland’s Cascade AIDS project, Rohleder discovered that she was "OK around sick people," but not cut out for a career in a hospital. "That's how I was introduced to acupuncture — a lot of clients there were getting it, and I decided I'd rather do that than go to medical school," Rohleder said. As an acupuncture student, Rohleder quickly discovered that acupuncture's prevailing business model was at odds with her personal ethics. "The model they teach you is treating wealthy people," she says.

Rohleder and classmate Skip Van Meter had similar ideas about the intersection of health and social justice. Following graduation, the two worked as acupuncturists at a public health clinic that was part of a substance abuse treatment program. The clinic also treated walk-in patients, offering sliding scale payments.

"That was where Skip and I realized that there was a market for this," she says. The going price for an acupuncture treatment is $60. Rohleder and Van Meter suspected that if they charged $15 a treatment and treated four patients simultaneously, that they could develop a viable acupuncture practice.

The business model she and Van Meter have pioneered is off the beaten path for their profession. “Everyone told us that working class people don't want acupuncture, and that's just not true — working class people just couldn't afford it," Rohleder said.

Taking acupuncture back to its bare essentials is at the core of Working Class Acupuncture's mission. Patients lie fully clothed in secondhand recliners while acupuncturists insert needles into their legs, and arms - a simple treatment method that, when paired with a large, open room, allows acupuncturists to treat several patients at a time.

Before Working Class Acupuncture, "acupuncture really had nothing in the middle for average people. And what's always been most important to me is to be able to serve the community that we're part of," Rohleder said. In Skip and Lisa's case, that was the Cully neighborhood.

The pair opened their first clinic in Cully in 2002, as funding for acupuncture in public health settings dwindled. They opened for business with just 12 patients a week. In the years since, they've opened a location on Portland’s west side and administer about 500 treatments a week. Clinic locations are chosen based on demand — Rohleder and Van Meter review where their clients come from, and try to open new locations to meet their needs: the Lents location was chosen because many patients were traveling to Cully from Southeast Portland and its suburbs.

The lobby of the Cully office has a map of the United States with pushpins showing every clinic in the Community Acupuncture Network — an organization Rohleder founded to help other acupuncturists follow the business model she and Van Meter developed. Rohleder is also developing the People's Organization of Community Acupuncture — a multi-stakeholder cooperative that she describes as "a way to take control of the economic foundation of something you need when normal capitalism isn't going to provide it for you."

Rohleder left the Catholic church for several years, but acknowledges that being raised in the faith deeply impacted her sense of justice and her values. It's also helped her apply acupuncture in a very different way. "The thing that's cool to me about acupuncture is that it works and we don't know how." Many acupuncturists, she explains, "need to see the science, ask why it works."  

The Catholic faith has a long history of providing medical care for the needy. Rohleder speculates that her faith prepared her to engage on a different level with acupuncture — a tradition that many consider esoteric and inaccessible. "I think Catholicism helped, because Catholics are more comfortable with mysteries. I just know that it works, and I'm more interested in seeing what we can do with it."

For Rohleder, coming back to the Catholic church after starting her business has helped her see the relationship between her work and her faith. "It just made sense. “This," she says, "is what somebody who's Catholic would do with acupuncture."