2016-07-27
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.

But leaders of the conference were frank in acknowledging they aren't sure exactly what the "faith health" movement will encompass. But they know it's a movement in its infancy; that it's going to be big and will redefine the future church.

The Rev. Jesse T. Williams, pastor at Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, explained his understanding of faith health by noting that African-American men are four to five times more likely to die from prostate cancer.

"What should Washington Tabernacle's response be to this issue?" he asked.

The church's response ended up as a partnership with the American Cancer Society and Washington University. The team held two days of prostate screening at the church.

"Many men won't go to the doctor, (but) may go to church," Williams said. The team screened 120 men and Williams said health professionals tell him it most likely helped save the lives of 7 percent of those men.

Most medical schools now offer courses on the link between faith and healing. But with the medical system in disarray and congregations that say their plates are already full, how will the faith health movement move? It may receive its biggest push from the government as welfare reform encourages faith-based organizations to administer more and more social programs.

Gunderson is concerned that without a thoughtful system nurtured by organizations like the Faith and Health Consortia churches will simply put a religious "glove" on the fist of inefficient solutions.

He said he believes leaders need to get beyond creating a cluster of interesting projects like parish nursing and prostate screening days to forming a coherent system or movement.

"Science says poverty and economic disparity are the greatest health risks," he said. "That means hospitals should be leading the charge against poverty. To do otherwise is to participate in a kind of malpractice."

People at the conference said they attended because they know they're reinventing the role of congregations and the roles of congregational leaders. Youth ministers, for example, will more and more be held accountable for the health of a congregation's youth. That includes issues such as violence, sexual identity and substance abuse.

"If you didn't already have churches, you'd have to invent them to deal with this opportunity," Gunderson said. Parish nursing is just the first step. "The time of challenge is here. We're being asked to come to the table," Gunderson said.



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