Gathering before dawn


The cross we forgot to put up the week before Easter. Ooops.

It’s easy to forget really important things. This is especially so when handling thousands of life-and-death events and a couple billion dollars amid the melt-down of political process utterly devoid of grown-ups. Take my own institution, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. We remembered to put the 35-ton Moravian star on top of the building at Christmas. But…how to say this? We forgot to put up the cross this year during Lent. A former chaplain called, wondering if a policy decision had been made to secularize things; roll the bunnies and eggs, but hide Jesus, sort of like a Walmart TV add? Nope, we just forgot. When reminded, up went the cross in about an hour. Even when you forget, it’s easy to remember. It just takes a nudge.

The Reverend Doctor Susan Thistlethwaite, former president of the Chicago Theological Seminary said at The Carter Center that churches and hospitals should have to qualify in some way before they are allowed to put up a cross. It’s not a pom-pom that you wave to cheer on your religious team. It’s a signal that you remember that life is found by giving it away; that the most important possible thing cannot be bought at all, but is there for the receiving—grace, forgiveness, a second, third and fourth chance built into the very fabric of the universe by a loving God. And it’s a signal that while none of us can qualify as “righteous,” Dr. King said we can all be great, because we can all serve. Abundant life is found in giving it all away, especially to the stranger, widow, orphan, poor, voiceless and cast-out. Looks like an ER to me.

A hospital or church doesn’t show that by putting up a cross. This particularly weird symbol points away from religious symbolism entirely. The god of Israel hated that stuff, as most every god does. Amos stated the obvious; “you know what God requires; love mercy, do justice and walk humbly.” That will get you killed; ask Jesus. And it will bring you to life, too. That’s what we’re trying to remember.

What would that look like today if you happen to be a hospital born of a movement of confident grace and healing? And what would it look like if you were in a community with one of those institutions and thought it showed signs of remembering who it was?

On September 5th and 6th Stakeholder Health will convene at Howard University in Washington, DC to help faith-inspired healthcare and their faith-inspired community to remember and then imagine and then commit. Unlike a bazzilion DC conferences that are full of  whining and scheming, this one is about remembering how to give it all away. It is about how faith makes us bold and risky, not privileged and safe. Hence the name: Faith in Health: Reasons, Risks and Responsibilities.

Stakeholder Health has been thinking about this ever since the White House came to the tough streets of Memphis in a blizzard in 2011 and discovered hundreds of tough-minded congregations in covenant with a faith-inspired hospital called Methodist. An extraordinary learning journey ensued that led through several White House events and others around the country. What were we trying to learn? We wanted to know if it was possible—and then how—for these institutions to give themselves to the well-being and wholeness of their communities. This learning came to sharp focus last year in a book of many authors, “Insights from New Systems of Health.” It is not imaginary, but testimony of work already alive on the toughest streets. It’s all about resilience, and obvious but radical new ways of understanding money, and crazy smart ways of doing community health workers, leadership, relational technology, global perspectives and over and over and over—being deeply accountable to our mission. It feels like life pulsing. We talk about the Leading Causes of Life. Here you can look it up.

Those involved in the learning are pretty buzzed at all this. But we know that even very large institutions aren’t capable of achieving what is possible without a fundamentally new depth and breadth of partnership with the faith already alive on the ground. Many hospitals chatter on about population health as if it is something that can be done to a passive community, sort of like one might do liver surgery on an anaesthetised patient. We seek partnerships not out of etiquette, but utterly practical need. It’s the only way the possibilities become realities.


Shadi Qasem, MD, Pathology Wake Forest Baptist Health and Coordinator, J’ummah Services

It’s time to wake everyone up and ask what is possible at this late date, even while the planet melts and those in power seem drunk with violence and the tools of fear. This might be the place to note that politicians have always seemed to have a knack for taking religious traditions built for shalom and turning them blunt, dumb and mean. The easiest way to do that is to turn them against another faith which is even easier if one hasn’t actually met any real members of that group. It’s hard to be mean or frightened of someone in your day-care pool or that you’ve prayed with. Nobody expected this would be necessary in the 21st century, but it is now a fundamental competence of anyone in a leadership role in healthcare or public health to know how to engage faith and the structures of faith as partners in a broad health strategy.

The convening in September is not for everyone. Don’t come if you think faith is best left behind or that the best of faith is behind us. Don’t come if you think that your medical computers and machines can be programmed to create health without needing any grown-ups on the streets. Don’t come if you’re more interested in death than life. And don’t come if you think that your churches and mosques and temples have pretty much done all that your God had hoped you might be doing.

There won’t be any healthcare, political or religious glamoratti dropping their powerpoints onto a compliant audience. This is actual dialogue with grown-ups talking to each other about how to be deeply accountable for what matters most. We’ll open with worship and take some time to understand the extraordinary witness of gathering at Howard during the 150th year of its tenacious witness for mercy and justice. And then we’ll dive in with the lead authors of the Stakeholder Health book sharpening the implications of the collective learning so that the faith partners see how crucial they are to what is possible. And we’ll talk about how its not much easier for a congregation to be faithful than a hospital. We’ll pray together; sing like any movement does and hope for the Spirit to move us beyond ourselves. Lots of details to follow, of course. But you can register here now.

Moravian Brass

Moravians know that no movement survives without music. They could not imagine a gathering without brass.

I’m writing this the morning before Easter in the village of Salem where TC and I live. Tonight around midnight brass bands from Moravian congregations all over the city start walking the streets in their neighborhoods playing hymns, gradually moving toward Salem. They play all night even though not many people can hear through the modern sealed windows. Some probably think they are dreaming of hearing the old hymns and don’t even know some actual people are playing the music. Hardly anybody knows what it means. But in the dark the bands can hear each other; as they come closer they tease. One band will play a phrase and then stop. Another two thirds of a mile away will pick it up. It’s not organized, but there is no anxiety about getting it right; people have gotten it right enough for a couple hundred years. Meanwhile in the early dark of God’s Acre a congregation of people begin to gather; people of many persuasions intrigued by the constancy of the Moravians, some wondering about their own faith stirring. By dawn hundreds of brass ensembles have found their way, some straggling in right as the sun breaks over the ridge into the dogwoods and cypress of the graveyard. It is beautiful. More important than that; it rings true in a curiously non-creedal kind of way.

God's Acre in Old Salem.

You can see life whole by looking back on it, here in God’s Acre, Old Salem.

I hope we come in September like that, playing the songs of the new systems of health on our own streets first, echoing, then converging so that we might all learn to be great in service. The link to register is here.

The table is set by the Investing Partners of Stakeholder Health with some supplemental funding from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Henny Youngman once said of love something that is more true of faith: you can’t buy it; but it can cost you a great deal.

This gathering is free, but it might cost you a lot.

The whole point is how to give it all away.

Something to think about this particular weekend. Remember that.

About garygunderson

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