Sometimes it helps to see through another’s eyes. This guide is holding up a print of a Georgia O’Keefe painting of those red dirt hills behind her. I’ll never walk by a pile of dirt again without wondering what it might look like in different light, through different eyes. It helps.
That was sort of my job with a very smart group of Coloradans gathered at Ghost Ranch this week. I’m not Georgia O’Keefe, but I do see things differently, especially where faith and the health of the public come into focus. Mark Earnest and I unpacked the intersection of the “social determinants of health” and what faith has to do with it, which turned on some new lights of possibility. There is a gathering wave of solid science linking social factors, especially inequality and poverty, to long term health status. During the time when the sixties generation has been doing this and that to entertain ourselves the United States has become a dramatically more stratified society, with a lot less mobility among the strata. I have no idea how my generation let that happen on our watch, but it did. The result is a striking, even shocking, rate of violence, obesity, widening of graduation rates, decline in voting and other things you just would not think would be so directly correlated. But they are.
So what does any of that have to do with faith? For the most part religion in the USA has been and is complicit with those trends. Sometimes it has been actively so. I’m thinking of the ugly and cynical wedding that you’d expect among cousins living up the ideological mountain holler. You can observe this on most any religious or Murdoch TV station. That stuff is so obvious that is will wash away with the first rain burst of rationality.
The more dangerous complicity is passive and mindless; when we have stayed content to do pastoral care and one-on-one kindness decade after decade. Those things are always right, but almost never adequate even for that one person, much less the next hundred or thousand just like them. This is visible in many substantive and worthy models of faith and health–notably Faith Community Nursing. This terrifically smart model holds great subversive promise, but is currently measured and valued by its capacity to provide caring, not social transformation. We have to hold that model–and all of our models–accountable to the powerful new insights provided by the social determinants of health. For the most part, the scientists doing that body of work don’t think about faith communities at all as having anything to do with those determinants. But I do.
It is right to worry about the mean chaos alive in the US today. I write this as The Deal goes down in DC; and as the blood goes down in Norway–cold shocks to any hope. But there is some serious science blowing the other way, that helps us see the way toward healing of the body politic, the public. It takes time for that flow to carve new patterns in the social stone, find new channels for the hopeful river to flow.
In the South Western Desert, you just can’t miss the astonishing changes wrought over time; and how much time those changes take–oceans up and down, volcanos and then millennia of wind and rain. This cautions and encourages me as I am so impatient for changes that should have already happened (universal health coverage). And then I see such clear evidence of the reality-based science and public will eroding the old rock-like resistance. It might take a couple decades instead of the months I would want. But you can feel the wind.
Meanwhile the powerful work on the ground is happening around rooms such as this one where people are seeing their own power and doing so with their own eyes. People from public and faith-based hospitals, a handful of faith community nurses, some semi-retired clergy and docs, a smart young anthropologist working on AIDS, a psychologist my age helping organize the early steps toward universal coverage in Colorado, another bringing PICO’s powerful community organizing methodology underneath a clergy action network and,
most astonishingly, a social worker who attends an evangelical church building community collaboration around… meth addicts. Sometimes hope on the ground is far more wild than the hope we were expecting. I dare you to feel hopeless in this group. I know that I can’t imagine giving up until they do. Delusional to hope? Or delusional to quit? I’m staying in and hope my life can be one small burst of wind carving the next curve of the rock ready to catch the light of the new sun.