Wild Water

“There is only one stream of water. What passes through the bodies of humans, passes through the bodies of animals, insects and plants. It flushes through our sanitation systems, flows through the rivers, seeps through wetlands, rises to the heavens to become clouds, and returns to nourish us and all living things. There is no life outside this cycle, and theology has to get real about it. Talking spirit without talking water is meaningless.” –Steve de Gruchy, Water and Spirit: Theology in the time of cholera.

Steve DeGruchy lived on the turbulent waves where theology was helping those in adjacent fields do hopeful labor amid fundamental vulnerability. Steve died earlier this year in, ironically, a wild river that he should not have been in. One of those emergent fields which Steve thought useful for life, was about Religious Health Assets which is how I became one small potato in his big bubbling stew of hopeful relationships. Last week, a group of us in the International Religious Health Assets Program (IRHAP) planted a tree on the Emory campus and gave papers in his honor at the American Academy of Religion.

Steve has been much in my mind as we get ready to open our “center of excellence in faith and health” in the heart of the hospital precisely because he constantly focused our attention outside of anything with walls toward the community—the social body.

Community is not just where we heal, but the thing that does the healing. This can only make sense when spoken with a theological accent, probably one with an African lilt. Shalom, like Bophelo, is a quality of a social body that is not “sort of like a body” or one only in the mind of a poet or prophet. It is, in the more crude language of our day, a network attribute. A network is not normally thought of as sacred but it can be. Shalom/Bophelo is the work of God, for Trinitarians, the work of the Spirit. We thrive because we are made into something capable of shalom or Bophelo.

Nobody even has an accurate count of how many religious hospitals have been born in the past two centuries. But it is important to note that every single one was formed out of a web of humans bound together in hopeful meaning capable of working amid chaos. Even a cursory glance at the tangled and tumbling stories of how the institutions of healing came to emerge alongside the wild Mississippi reveals a twisty bit of chaos. A hospital that was built to care for a very white Methodist pastor by a plantation owner in the heart of the Delta now provides the preponderance of indigent care for mostly African American men and women, upon whose ancestors’ backs and suffering that early wealth was built. Closely aligned academic and research institutions share the same intertwined ironies that are almost too incendiary to fully map. Today we are wrestling real relationships and caregiving from this bitter landscape partly by means of relationships that dare to bear the name of a “covenant” designed to weave a “web of trust.” We hope to do this even amid ongoing unpredictability at the heart of liquid modernity. We live on the banks of a very turbulent river that never lets us forget that history emerges from unpredictability which produces good, bad and tangled things all along the journey.

It is almost too painful to read Steve’s writings about the complex symbolism of water in which both life and death tangled and tumbled together in ways that can only be spoken of in song, poem and lament. Do not try that at home alone for any one life is too bounded and random on which to rest any hope of transformation. Surely, this is the most obvious thing in all of human history.

The testimony is not all about bleak unpredictability, for chaos has an upside. Both theology and public health wonder whether chaos actually trends toward upside or downside. Human plans are often swept away, but sometimes improved in the process.

The findings of IRHAP on the effectiveness of faith forming entities on improving health outcomes remains somewhat mysterious precisely because the impact is inseparable from the ritual spiritual practices that form, sustain and reform and express faith. Worship, prayer, practices of accompaniment, hope and lament are not advanced by stripping them of their religious essence to be explained by the more barren language of functional outcomes. Health is a by product of an essentially mysterious process of faith. At least that is what those practicing in the context of the faith forming entities say. Steve listened to them, which is why his research and analysis has been so strikingly vivid and bold. May we be so, too.


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Professor, Faith and the Health of the Public, Wake Forest University School of Divinity. NC Certified Beekeeper Author, Leading Causes of Life, Deeply Woven Roots, Boundary Leaders, Religion and the Heath of the Public, Speak Life and God and the People. God and the People: Prayers for a Newer New Awakening. Secretary Stakeholder Health. Founder, Leading Causes of Life Initiative

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