Unlikely Webs of Trust

Note: this was originally posted yesterday as a column in the Faith Matters section of the local Memphis newspaper, edited with his usual graceful touch by David Waters.

EAST JERUSALEM — It seems naive to speak of “religious health assets” here in a place where religion has caused so much damage to health and well-being.
But that is exactly what a group of leaders of faith-based health care systems came to this sacred and tortured rocky hill to discuss, traveling from Taiwan, India, Zambia, Norway, Germany, Kenya, South Africa — and Memphis.
We had no illusion of understanding how to bring shalom or salaam to this troubled land, but we were curious about how we might learn how to do that in our own troubled homes.
I was here to talk about the Congregational Health Network — Methodist HealthCare’s coalition of about 400 congregations, community health centers and privately funded clinics to promote public health in underserved communities. We call it the Memphis Model.
I always feel naive to talk of building a web of trust among hundreds of congregations on the same Memphis streets where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s blood flowed. Putting trust and faith in the same sentence attracted even more curiosity in Jerusalem than it did a few weeks earlier when I was at the White House.
But the Memphis Model offers a tantalizing vision of linking comprehensive technology — such as that offered by the West Clinic — with hundreds of volunteer caregivers and prevention experts (mostly grandmothers) in the neighborhoods. The entire CHN network costs less than one mid-range linear accelerator, used for radiation treatments, but probably extends the lives of hundreds of people that will never need one because their church helped them to quit smoking.
This sort of faith-based, trust-building approach to medical care was lauded at the conference by Dean Pallant, head of external relations for the Salvation Army, which has 134 hospitals around the world, mostly in places far more troubled than Memphis on a bad week. Pallant suggests that faith-based systems should focus on conditions that need longer term relationships of trust — addiction, depression or chronic conditions such as diabetes, AIDS, or sickle cell.
Such trust-building turns our attention away from the fantastically costly technologies. Science actually points in the same direction as the greatest gains in life span come from the relatively simple management of conditions over decades, not the heroic and often futile interventions near the end.
We saw similar examples here. We met in the Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives. The hospital had just installed a mid-range linear accelerator. Hospital officials also have also worked with the Council of Imams to get people immunized; rates improved from 20 percent to 90 percent.
The Memphis Model is being adapted even here in the bitterly tough streets of East Jerusalem.
In a city of walls and a world of need, it might be shocking to think that religion can help to create pathways for people to get health care and attention they need when they need it. But it is happening. The faith and health communities are learning from each other.
One morning, I watched the dawn light up the ancient stones and wondered how many layers of civilization lay beneath the ones I could see. Then I noticed that I was sharing the view with a young Muslim couple trying to balance their camera on one of the stones, setting the timer so they could both be in the picture.
I dropped my weighty deliberations and offered to help. I clicked and then we all stared at the back of the camera and declared it good. Maybe that’s the point; to look around and notice who else is looking at the same past, present and future and help each other get it in focus.

May it be so.
Direct link to the Commercial Appeal website:
http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2011/dec/31/guest-commentary-web-of-trust-can-lift-up/

About garygunderson

Vice President, Faith Health, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC. Author, Leading Causes of Life, Deeply Woven Roots, Boundary Leaders and Religion and the Heath of the Public. Secretary, Stakeholder Health (Health Systems Learning Group).
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