please read through to the bottom of this page and contact organizations
aligned to your beliefs that offer similar services. This website is
non-denominational - Ed.]
faith-based health ministries provide
medicine + hope.
By Emily Dossett
As Dolores walked through the door of the community center’s health
fair, I could tell something was terribly wrong. She walked unsteadily,
groping the wall for support, and she seemed to be sweating too much
for a cool spring morning. After having her blood pressure, vision,
and cholesterol checked, she came to my table to enroll in health insurance
programs. She was desperately in need of health care: With advanced
diabetes she barely had feeling in her feet - a sure sign of nerve damage
- and her blood pressure had soared to dangerous heights.
Despite her need, as a middle-aged woman working for minimum wage without
benefits, Dolores didn’t qualify for any insurance programs, public
or private. The only option left for Dolores was the emergency room
- where her immediate problem would be addressed, but the longer term
effects of diabetes would remain unchecked until she ends up back in
the ER again.
Dolores’ story is not unique. You may have heard the statistics: 44.3
million Americans don’t have health insurance, and their ranks are growing
by 100,000 - enough to fill the largest stadium in the country - each
Millions more are "underinsured," meaning that their health plan may
not cover all the services needed or may make obtaining them so difficult
that people quit trying. And in this country, problems with insurance
mean problems with health care, since health care costs are so high
that very few people can pay on their own.
Our health care system is unraveling, pure and simple.
Los Angeles County tells the story all too well. In May, the private
insurance system went into crisis as the California Medical Association
- the largest organized group of doctors in the state - sued the state’s
top health plans for racketeering. The for-profit plans were posting
profits in the hundreds of million of dollars, while their doctors were
reimbursed so little that they could not even afford office space.
On the public side of health care, the county’s health services declared
themselves on the verge of bankruptcy for the second time in a decade.
County contracts with free clinics - the only alternative for the city’s
3 million uninsured people - were going to be slashed by 40%, if they
were renewed at all. In a situation like this, how does one possibly
On a rare rainy Sunday morning in downtown Los Angeles, Caryl Bullock
sets up her usual table in Wilshire Presbyterian Church’s fellowship
hall. She arranges colorful flyers on topics ranging from the
nutritional "food pyramid" to immigration legal services to free
dental clinics. Alongside the flyers lie her stethoscope, monitors to
test for high cholesterol and blood sugar, and a stack of medical history
Parishioners arrive for the 11 a.m. service, folding dripping umbrellas
and pulling off raincoats. Caryl greets them all, often with personal
questions about each congregant’s well-being - asking one how her new
blood pressure medication is working, inquiring into the success of
another’s job search, or remarking on a toddler’s
In the Sunday morning bustle of running children and animated conversation,
Caryl is both a calming and vibrant presence. She serves as a parish
nurse with QueensCare Health & Faith Partnership (QHFP), a parish nursing
program that places nurses in more than 50 churches, religious schools,
and faith-based nonprofits in one of the poorest areas of Los Angeles.
QHFP is a division of QueensCare, a public charity offering several
health care programs to the low income, uninsured individuals and families
of Los Angeles county. The QHFP nurses play many roles: health educator,
provider of basic health screenings and referrals, and even pastoral
Each nurse works closely with "health committees": church members who
assess the congregation’s greatest health needs. QueensCare’s vision
is to empower individuals and communities to take responsibility for
their health, defined as a greater sense of well-being - spiritual,
financial, and physical.
QueensCare’s parish nursing model is just one type of "health ministry."
All over the country, people of faith are volunteering medical services,
collaborating with free clinics, even running entire health care centers
in larger and larger numbers. The Great Lakes region alone has 116 free
clinics, most with some degree of faith-based support.
While medical care has always been one component of Christian service,
why the surge in health ministries? Clearly, one reason is that the
crisis in private and government-run programs has resulted in increasing
health care needs, as more and more people need somewhere to turn for
quality health care. But health ministries have unique aspects that
make them more than just a last resort in a failing system - they have
benefits that meet needs more effectively than their secular counterparts.
First, health ministry offers a level of caring that’s hard to find
anywhere else. As people of faith, health care providers working in
these ministries have a strong model to follow: Jesus as healer. The
gospels are full of stories of Jesus’ healing powers and his compassion
for those who suffered physically. Jerry Stromberg, director of the
Christian Community Health Fellowship, says that the religious conviction
of those who work in health ministries is often what helps their services
provide "more bang for their buck."
"One reason why faith-based health services differ from those that aren’t
[faith based] is due to staff who, though they may not even be paid
as much, have greater levels of dedication,
give special efforts, and have higher retention rates," Stromberg
explains. "These factors are measurable, as dedication and compassion
really translate into better quality of care, and as the providers have
chosen to be there out of a sense of mission or calling."
Faith-based health care is also unique in its emphasis on the whole
person. The goal is not only to understand Dolores’ diabetes, but also
how well she eats, where she sleeps, who she turns to for emotional
support, and how her spiritual strengths and needs might be best nurtured.
As Susan Fuentes, vice president of QHFP, explains, "Health is integration
of all aspects of a person. The spiritual is the core, the defining
part of who a person is; all other parts of life integrate with that
- the relational, financial, emotional, mental, physical, and environmental."
In fact, Fuentes believes that even if a person’s physical health is
never completely restored, a strong and sustaining spiritual life is
enough to define that person as "healthy."
enough, health ministry’s emphasis on the whole person, with spirituality
playing a central role is finally getting the attention of medical doctors.
notion that a healthy spiritual life can actually improve one’s physical
life is receiving increasing amounts of press.
Studies by physician Harold Koenig, director of Duke University’s Center
for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health, have shown that people
who regularly attend church, pray individually, and read the Bible have
lower blood pressure, are hospitalized less often, are less likely to
suffer depression from illness or stress,
have stronger immune systems, suffer better outcomes from physical illness,
and actually live longer.
And just as religious faith seems like an inherently healthy approach
to life, so too are churches natural locations to care for people’s
health. Fuentes emphasizes to churches interested in starting a health
ministry that they actually already have one. "I always ask them, ‘Do
you have weddings? Baptisms? Other social events? Do you take food to
people who are sick? Or start a prayer chain for someone who’s suffering
in the congregation? Then you already have a health ministry!’ We just
bring people in to help coordinate and expand what’s already going on."
Fuentes believes that the two important ingredients for healing are
already present in the church: hope and relationships. Hope provides
the motivation to heal, while social support helps a patient through
the process from sickness to health. All the factors that make health
ministry unique - scriptural motivation to serve, emphasis on the whole
person, the health benefits of religion, and the hope and relationships
found in churches - work together to make them a compelling alternative
to our crisis-ridden health care system.
With all the benefits that health ministries can offer, however, these
services aren’t a panacea for our health care system’s ills. Many more
people need health care than these ministries can serve, and hospital
stays and treatment for more complicated illnesses are beyond the capacity
of the primary care focus of many faith-based clinics. Even beyond practical
matters, health ministries shouldn’t be the solution for a crumbling
health care system.
The churches are not called to heal the sick while quietly accepting
a health care system that often exacerbates illnesses. Dolores’s diabetes
is made worse by lack of good treatment, since she cannot afford health
care and has fallen through the cracks of a patchwork safety net. Along
with serving her medical needs, people of faith are called to challenge
a system that allows situations like Dolores’ to be tragically widespread.
The faith community is called to play a fundamental role in advocating
health care justice. And the issue is undeniably one of justice. Already
mentioned is the discrepancy between enormous profits posted by insurance
plans while public programs continue to go broke. This inequality is
no accident; business interests with enormous amounts of money and power
stand in the way of health care reform.
In 1997-98, the top two spenders on Capitol Hill were pharmaceutical
and insurance companies; combined, these industries spent nearly $300
million on lobbying and $44.2 million on campaign contributions.
At the same time, those who suffer most from poor health care are those
groups that all too often bear the burden of injustice: the very young
and the very old; racial and ethnic minorities;
and especially the working poor.
Almost half (46%) of uninsured Americans have jobs. Only
9% of the uninsured are unemployed. (The remaining 45% are children
and people out of the labor force, such as the elderly and homemakers.)
Add to this the fact that medical-related expenses are the
number one cause of personal bankruptcies in this country, and the
correlation between working hard and reaping the benefits - at least
in terms of health care - becomes even more disjointed.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "There is no greater injustice than
inequality in health care." Yet even with such a clear-cut case of injustice,
health care reform in recent years has been a pariah of a political
issue; many health care advocates are still recovering from the defeat
of President Clinton’s 1994 health care reform plan. But the political
tides are turning, and faith communities are essential to making it
People of faith are to be healers in two different but inseparable ways:
healing individuals through ministry and healing the system through
advocacy. The Ohio Council of Churches states it well: "The responsibility
to care with compassion for ‘the least of these’ who are in need of
health care, or who are marginalized by the illness of the health care
system, is clearly a duty of those who are Jesus’ disciples" (Matthew
25:34-36). Working toward healing is a challenge of spiritual significance
- but a challenge as tangible as Dolores’
It’s literally a matter of life or death.
find out more about health ministries
The following organizations provide literature, books, and videos on
subjects from community health and parish nursing to pending health
care bills and the U2K Campaign.
Christian Community Health Fellowship
3812 West Ogden Ave.
P.O. Box 23429
Chicago, IL 60623
T (773) 843-2700
QueensCare Health & Faith Partnership
1300 North Vermont Ave.
T (323) 953-7333
Universal Health Care Action Network
2800 Euclid Ave.
T: (216) 241-8422 or 1-800-634-4442
2800 Euclid Ave.
Cleveland OH 44115-2418
T: (216) 902-5577
© 2006 Emily Dossett and SojoNet
Sojourners Magazine • 2401 15th Street NW • Washington
DC 20009 Phone: (202) 328-8842 • Fax: (202) 328-8757