Bridging the Gap between Faith and Health
By Dr. Fred Smith, Director of Advancement, Director of the Center for Leadership in Public Theology, Professor of Public Theology, Houston Graduate School of Theology Much of my work in Public Theology has been to bridge the gap between the public health promotion field and the religious education of faith communities. The public health field is beginning to appreciate the importance of spirituality and lifestyle choices for health and healing. Public health agencies have increasingly turned to the faith communities, especially in areas of substance abuse, AIDS, and youth violence.
From 1992-96, I worked as a consultant with the Center of Public Health Practice (CPHP) to assist in designing a community-based public health strategy for faith communities to address community-identified problems of substance abuse, AIDS, and youth violence. Religious and spiritual sources of the faith community are often not appreciated when addressing public health issues. Therefore, another concern of mine has been to help the public health sector to appreciate and utilize the distinctive resources that are unique to the faith communities when dealing with public health problems. The public health sector, of which the school of public health is part, often perceives contributions of the faith community as merely sources of facilities, volunteers, and access to indigenous populations. This serves the public health promotion aims of public health institutions rather than furthering meaningful partnership with faith communities.
As National Program Director of the National Pan-Methodist Coalition on Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs (ATOD) in 1990-92, I was charged with the challenge to create a religious education curriculum to address substance abuse for the Pan-Methodist Commission. This project led to my concern for a language to speak about health promotion in a religious setting. At that time, many in the federal government and in the treatment field have concluded that substance abuse was a public health problem that required a spiritual solution. Some have suggested that, if society is to have any hope of making a difference in its struggle with substance abuse, the church must become involved, because it will require the unique resources of the faith community.
There exists precious little dialogue between the faith community and the public health establishment around issues such as youth violence. Youth violence is an issue that concerns both the faith community and public health sector. There are a number of reasons for the gaps that separate these two potential allies. One aspect of our present dilemma is the lack of a common language and meaningful system to speak about our common agenda.
Although many faith communities are actively involved in outreach ministries that target youth violence, AIDS, and substance abuse ministries, there exists very little theological reflection on what faith communities uniquely bring to these endeavors that are peculiar to the faith community. This often leads to a lack of enthusiasm on the part of faith communities for collaboration on these types of initiatives. The public health field usually perceives this lack of enthusiasm as a gap between what the church professes and what it does. My work with public health and faith communities has heightened my urgency to bridge this gap.
The faith communities are being asked to recover their historical and moral roots as healers and promoters of healthy lifestyles. Faith communities have responded by calling on society to recover its historical religious moorings, political freedom, and moral imperatives. Perhaps it is time to bridge the existing gap in order to offer active outreach with theological reflection and to work more definitively toward collaboration for a new day and a new way forward in ministry.