I weep for the hurt of my people; I stand amazed silent, dumb with grief. Is there no medicine in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why doesn't God do something? Why doesn't He help? —Jeremiah 8:21-22 (Living Bible Translation)
Today many Americans die and are disabled from health conditions that are greatly impacted by lifestyle behaviors. In fact, 54% of our health status is a result of lifestyle choices. These conditions might be prevented or better managed if we 1) knew the risks associated with many health problems, 2) believed that healthy activities could be beneficial, and 3) could receive appropriate health care services and resources. Lifestyle changes that can improve the quality of life have been identified as engaging in consistent moderate exercise; cessation from smoking and other addictions; consuming a diet high in fiber, and low in fat and cholesterol; increasing social support; and actively managing stress.1
Today, several of the leading causes of death—Heart Disease, Cancers, Strokes, Injuries, Chronic Lung Disease, Pneumonia/Influenza, Diabetes, Suicide, HIV/AIDS, Homicide, Liver Disease—are considered "lifestyle" diseases because they could be reduced through common sense changes in lifestyle. Oftentimes we speculate on or presume to know the causes of these "lifestyle" diseases and disabilities from specific behaviors exhibited by the individual at risk. For example, the person who suffers a heart attack might consume a diet high in saturated fat, engage in little or no exercise and might smoke. The person involved in a motor vehicle accident might have been speeding or consuming alcohol. Perhaps the person was not wearing a seatbelt. These are examples of things that we observe and speculate on and, when a family member, loved one or friend whose death, disease, disability is caused by a specific behavioral action, we discuss and share with one another our own need to "do better" or admit that we "need to make some changes." Sadly, the time for making needed changes in our own lives gets pushed on the back burner until a crisis hits.
And then there are those diseases that often go undetected until it is too late—sadness, loneliness, hopelessness, helplessness, lovelessness, insecurities, personal guilt and persecution, abandonment, discouragement, low self-esteem and image, stress, depression, and a broken heart (to name a few). These are symptoms of pending disability and serious health change if they continue to go undetected. These are the diseases that we often cannot readily observe. They are masked. People are masking these emotions because they fear rejection if anyone really knew what they were going through—if anyone knew the "real deal". People are masking these emotions because society teaches us to be strong and to "pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps". We are taught to laugh on the outside and not to let anyone see us cry. There is so much pain. Pain so deep that we cannot pull ourselves up or call out for help to anyone. We cry out in anguish "Oh God, help me"!
It is in the context of these often "undetected" diseases that the emotional, mental and spiritual dimensions of health must further emerge. It is in these three dimensions that the church must take the lead role. For many, health is narrowly defined and specifically targeted to one dimension—the physical. Health consists of five dimensions—physical, social, emotional, mental, and spiritual. An individual is considered healthy when all of these dimensions are working together in harmony. Because healing does not necessarily mean curing (as we tend to think), a Health Ministry in a congregation involves emotional, mental and spiritual healing which can occur during illness even when curing of the disease is not present.2 Galatians 5:15 reminds us to "Love our neighbors, as ourselves". As Christians we are called to love as Jesus Christ has loved. We are called to service, as Jesus Christ served. We have the responsibility to minister to those in need. In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:37-40) Jesus invites the righteous (the sheep) to receive their inheritance by entering the kingdom which has been prepared for them because of their faithful service and unselfish, compassionate giving. ("I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me"). We should strive to be sheep.
Can the church make a difference in reducing disability and death? The church today still represents a natural point of reference for many communities. It is because it is a natural reference point that focusing health promotion and disease prevention activities should be given careful thought. "We are finding that all the 'expert and expensive health care solutions' still do not guarantee better health outcomes and quality of life. It may be that to mobilize, educate, and coordinate resources through congregations works better".3 It is not a new idea for churches to develop health programs whose purpose is to have an impact upon the most significant health risks and crippling health conditions in congregations. However, it is an increasingly important one as health care funding and services gradually shrink. Local churches can help address the need for more appropriate and accessible health care services and the inadequacy of our health care system. In addition, the local church can bring a holistic perspective to an understanding of health as being in harmony with self, others, the environment, and God. Health is a continuum of physical, social, psychological, and spiritual well-being.
Today, social service and social action are seen as integral and complementary forms of ministry. Church-related social services and institutions serve many needs. Church-related social action and policy formation cover a wide range of contemporary issues which include: urban life, poverty, housing, health care, family life, women's issues, child care, aging, hospice, racial and ethnic concerns, needs of handicapped persons, peace, and refugees and immigration.4 As both social services and social action ministries remain faithful to God's vision of shalom, they will respond to the changing needs and new possibilities among people and within society, working always toward liberation from life's bondage and reconciliation of the alienated.5 The development of health ministries within the congregation helps focus the members' awareness on the essential Christian ministry of health and healing.6
When health ministries are an essential part of congregational life, the members:
A. Find opportunities to volunteer their help to those who are in the hospital, or those who are home bound or living in residential care centers;
B. Have the opportunity to learn about wellness and disease prevention. Healthy lifestyle choices are promoted through seminar and workshops, giving information in such arease as exercise, nutrition and handling stress;
C. Through health screening, make early detection and treatment possible; and
D. Provide appropriate resources and advocacy to individuals and community.7
A health ministry can promote healing and health as wholeness, as a mission of a faith community to its members and the community it serves. This takes a variety of people, paid and volunteer, laity and clergy, all committed to sharing the compassionate love and grace of Jesus Christ.
As we weep for the hurt and pain of each as we stand in amazement, silent, and dumb with grief; as we wonder if there is medicine in Gilead; as we wonder if there is a physician there; as we wonder if God is going to do something or if God will help, God will, for God is the ultimate Balm in Gilead. But, God also wants us to be a Balm, a healing salve. Developing a health ministry does not require vast sums of money. It only requres us to become the body of Christ. We must have the compassion of Christ, the heart of Christ, the soul of Christ, and most importantly, the love of Christ.
Written by Barbara T. Baylor, MPH, CHES
Minister for Health Care Justice
Economic Justice Team
Justice and Witness Ministries
1. Hatch, John. Health and Wellness Concept Paper. North Carolina Central University Department of Health Education, Durham, NC. 1996.
2. Beginning A Health Ministry: A "How-To" Manual, Health Ministries Association, Lutheran Brotherhood Foundation. 1994.
3. Jackson, Curtis. General Baptist State Convention of NC. Health and Human Service Program. 1980.
4. Mission Statement on Health and Welfare. United Church of Christ. 1985.
6. Beginninng a Health Ministry: A "How-To" Manual. Health Ministries Association. The Lutheran Brotherhood Foundation. 1994.