Faith Groups Face Health Care Issues

As health care concerns loom larger, some congregations are scrambling to meet members' needs

BY: Hilary Wicai


ST LOUIS, May 10 (RNS)--Rabbi Susan Talve wonders, only half-jokingly, if her congregation will eventually fire her because she spends so much time on health care and not enough time on congregational issues.

"I'm a city rabbi and the biggest problem in the city is our kids' health," said Talve, senior rabbi at Central Reform Congregation here. "I don't have time for this work, but I can't not do this work," she said. "I've spent my whole day on health-care issues. I haven't even been to the office," she lamented.

Between sessions at the recent Faith & Health Conference here, Talve was on her cell phone working on a program that addresses uninsured children in Missouri.

Talve was one of 320 religious and health-care leaders who came together to ponder the increasing role faith-based institutions play in health care and the growing influence health issues play in the daily lives of congregations.

For example, parish nursing is becoming a phenomenon. In the past 15 years it is estimated more than 1,000 churches and synagogues in the United States have hired nurses. "Parish nurses," as they are called, help with in-home care and offer congregational workshops on topics such as diet, exercise and health screenings. As conference participants introduced themselves, they were quick to note that their congregations either already had a parish nurse, or were studying the prospect of parish nursing.

One participant explained his congregation was in a declining area so it had teamed up with several other congregations of varying faiths to hire one parish nurse who works with several churches.

The conference was the first public event of the St. Louis Faith and Health Consortium, one of six such consortia in the United States and Africa. Other cities with consortia include Atlanta, Pittsburgh, the San Francisco Bay Area, Columbia, S.C., and Cape Town, South Africa. They are the result of a project at The Rollins School of Public Health of Atlanta's Emory University.

The project's goal is to identify areas where congregations could be linked to seminaries and schools of public health and medicine. The recent St. Louis conference was co-sponsored by the Deaconess Foundation.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Gunderson, director of the interfaith program at Rollins, said he believes the faith and health consortia are a sign of the times that will help churches find a way to incorporate health into their faith issues. "If you go into any congregation and write down what they're talking and praying about, 98 percent of it is health related," he said.

The Centers for Disease Control has added fuel to the argument for a link between faith and health. The CDC says a strong ministerial alliance is a key factor in improving the health of a community. And recent studies at medical schools and the National Institutes of Health show a positive correlation between religious belief and a person's health.

Gunderson said all of this points to one thing: churches that don't address the faith health issue will die.

"The churches that survive." he said, "will be the ones perceived by members as places they go to be healthy."

The pairing of faith and health is welcome to many who believe the religious and scientific communities have been separated for too long.

"We're sick and tired of being pulled apart," said the Rev. Martin E. Marty, history professor emeritus from the University of Chicago.

"Generally, the faith and health movement can be understood as reflecting two interlinked crises of the church: the relationship to its members--why come?--and to its community--what have you done for me lately?" Gunderson said. "It is not enough to answer just one of the crises, by just saying `we're good for your health, although irrelevant to your community.'

"You can't have flourishing people in a dead community," he added.

In other words, the idea of "faith health" is not just parish nursing.

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