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Health and Justice Symposium

Is There No Balm in Gilead?

Cal Turner Program hosts conference on health care and justice

By Chris McCain

“Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”
(Jeremiah 8:22)

Not only is health care is an important political issue, it is a moral and religious one. In a country with over 50 million uninsured people – and millions more who are underinsured – the accessibility of quality health care should be a primary concern for all U.S. faith leaders. However, in the midst of the public dialogue about our nation’s health care system, many pastors have felt hesitant to engage their congregations on health care issues due to a perceived lack of knowledge or out of worry for its bitterly divisive politics.

Recognizing the widespread desire to have an informative, balanced conversation about faith and health care, the Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership convened about 100 leaders from local churches, synagogues, hospitals, and nonprofit organizations at a half-day conference on March 3, 2011. With the prophet Jeremiah’s cry for the health of Israel as its overarching theme, this conference sought to explore how congregations can be more informed about and involved in the health of their communities – both at the local level and in the crafting of public policy.

Although politics cannot be fully separated from conversations about our health care system, we hoped to offer a forum that set aside the heated rhetoric in order to generate constructive dialogue about what can be done in Tennessee. Now that a year has passed since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act became law, there is an opportunity for community leaders – and pastors, especially – to claim a prominent role in conversations about how health care reform should be most effectively implemented at the local level.

With speakers from churches and organizations across the state, this conference included plenary lectures and training workshops on topics such as the details of health care reform, ideas for teaching and preaching on health care, strategies for mobilizing congregations, as well as developing a deeper understanding of the politics of the debate. At the close of the conference, we were honored to have Tennessee’s new governor, Bill Haslam, deliver brief concluding remarks.

As I reflect on this conference, I realize that I have learned several things. First, there is a large and growing interest among faith leaders on health care issues. When I first began planning this conference, I did not anticipate the diversity of people who would want to attend this event. In addition to pastors and physicians, I learned that professionals from many backgrounds are deeply concerned with the role of faith communities on this issue.

Second, there are simple things that congregations can do that greatly impact the well-being of their members. For example, Dr. Scott Morris, founder of Church Health Center in Memphis, talked about the impact that conversations about diet, exercise, and end-of-life matters can have on the nation’s overall health-care expenditures – and, more importantly, on the overall welfare of their communities. Although these conversations can be difficult, they raise important theological questions that relate to how we understand and value our physical bodies, individually and in relation to our communities. Other conference speakers suggested great ideas for faith communities to consider: preaching or offering Sunday School classes on what the Bible says about health care, starting or becoming involved with a free health clinic, and educating people about how to navigate public and private health insurance systems.

Third, faith brings people together. However simplistic that statement may sound, this conference demonstrated to me that when faith – and not politics – serves as the focal point for conversations on health care, people who might otherwise disagree become more willing to listen to and engage one another in thoughtful discussion. Transcending the political rhetoric, there are values on which people from all faith backgrounds can agree, such as humility, compassion, and respect for all creation. When these values are emphasized, conversations take place that do not become as narrowly focused on a singular issue or objective, such as rising health care costs or unequal access to medical services. At this conference, I overheard conversations that were holistic and took into account a wide range of concerns, all of which centered on the health and welfare of whole communities.

Of course, there is much work still to be done. I hope that this conference was only the beginning of what will be many future conversations in and among faith communities across Tennessee. As the national dialogue about health care reform continues, I pray that the voices of religious leaders across our state and country might help to elevate the debate to one of respect and care for all of God’s people.

Healing man