Finding Our Bearings

mapbigHow do we find our bearings when we are so far off the known map? Last week I reflected on how bearings were the things we rest our weight on when times are mean. We humans simply must bear each others’ burdens. This is the essence of being human, rather than some other animal that only hurts, breaks down and takes what they can grab. Those lesser mammals are scary, but easily and always defeated by the kind that bears each other up, that tends to our wounded to inspire confidence and coherence.

Bearing means another thing, also helpful in this deeply confused and anxious time. We’ve lost our bearings, wandered off the map. The mariners drew dragons on the edges of their maps to warn the lost. We can see dragons from where we’ve drifted; just turn on the TV. Where do we find our bearings in these uncharted times?

You wouldn’t think it would be possible to lose our way on such a small blue marble of a planet. The problem is that the planet is so small that we can’t find any place where there are only people like our little tribe and no others. We need to find our way into working relationships with those who do not share everything and that we cannot beat into line.

Billy Graham dedicated his every breath to persuading everyone on the blue marble to agree with what he considered life and death and obvious: Jesus. At the end of a century of very serious effort, he got nearly everyone’s attention, but not their agreement. And many who did agree do not yet show they understood the kind and forgiving Jesus that animated Billy through his years.

People of such certainty as Reverend Graham are like a Rorschach test, telling us more through our response than their own witness. Some remember him helping pay Dr. King’s bail out of the Birmingham jail; others remember his voice like a sledgehammer on their teen ears. Gene Matthews, my health policy lawyer buddy from UNC-Chapel Hill, came from the same place as Billy. His  dad knew Billy’s dad and remembers in elementary school in South Carolina that his teacher stopped class and had them put their heads down on the table to listen to the very young Billy on the radio. Gene turned out alright, serving as the General Counsel for the CDC through six Directors over nearly three decades. But many who heard Billy still wince.

I’m guessing that Reverend Graham would be more open and kind than many of the politicians eager for a photo op by his casket. Most religious leaders are more creative thinkers than their followers, especially the ones that turn their ideas into “fundamentals.” Of course, every faith leader should be expected to believe their own stuff enough to want others agree. But every religion has a mean and dangerous side, as well as an attractive and transformative one. Thee Smith, one of my colleagues from Emory, said that one of the key tasks of any religious leader is to try to make their religion safe for the rest of the world who do not share it.

Nobody—not even Billy Graham—can convince everybody on the Blue Marble to believe anything close to the same thing as long as it keeps spinning. Many religious leaders die at the hands of somebody who agrees with them on almost everything. They die for showing tolerance to somebody slightly more different than one of their own finds tolerable. Jesus, Gandhi, Martin, Malcolm were all killed by people who worshipped the same way. Some Lutheran clergy can still get fired for praying in public at the kind of community events we’ve seen following Parkland horrors.

Religious identity remains a useful blunt instrument with which to pummel others who stand in the way of something some 1% wants. However, we humans continue to diversify even as we become more intimately entangled with each other. We eat food grown by, work on machines made by, drive on highways shared with, fly on planes piloted by and are nursed by those we do not expect to worship like us. Not in 2018.


Foothills Free Clinic in Wilkesboro, NC. About the most mundane place for miracles since the Pool at Bethesda. I think Jesus would have liked that the clinic borrows the Wifi from the tattoo parlor.

These days you just never know whose hands you might find on the the plough next to ours. The Foothills Free Clinic in Wilkesboro, NC is driven by the generous practicality of tough hill people of faith. The key volunteer is Dr. Ernest Cohn, an integrated medicine practitioner and chiropractor who is Jewish. More than a thousand of his neighbors—probably not Jewish—owe their lives to this clinic, now a working partner of the hospital called Baptist that I work for.

Any agency, public, private or faith-based who has a mandate to care for any real place–any real city, any real state, any real neighborhood—must figure out how to make this radical diversity an asset.  On the ground where the poor are trying to find any hope at all, the people who care need every type of person of every persuasion to share the care. The practical daily labor involved in advancing the health of that place depends on aligning all the assets of all those motivated to help.

Weaving difference is an essential competence of anyone trying to heal anything more complicated than one organ system on one occasion. Even there you may damage the human involved even as you get the surgery right, if you make unfounded assumptions about who they are. Pause the knife to ask if the person’s faith is an asset or complication in what you are hoping to do with their organ. Do they believe something that will interfere, or perhaps accelerate, the healing modality?

As soon as you try to do anything beyond one event in one organ in one human, you simply must use the arts of collaboration with eyes wide open for the durable complexity of human populations. Here you look for the social structures of faith that mediate the dynamics that might keep us apart. Those social structures of faith—some 300,000 communities of Spirit in the United States alone—not only buffer, but nurture the capacities for collaboration and compassion.


Counsellor Anita Holmes in the main hallway of Leonard Hall, built as a medical school, not the Divinity School of Shaw University.

How do we work with those social structures of faith in collaboration with government and private entities such as hospitals? Good question. That’s exactly the question that the National Academies of Science Roundtable on Population Health is addressing on March 22nd in a special workshop exploring faith-based assets and population health. The free, one-day public workshop will explore challenges and opportunities for health sector actors that engage with “faith-based health assets.” These organizations and social structures, in the form of congregations and religious community service networks, collaborate with others in communities, including health systems and public health agencies, to improve the conditions for health and well-being. There will be voices of many faiths including Muslim, Jewish Sikh, B’hai and varieties of Christian.

Please visit the registration page to sign up for the workshop or the live webcast and visit our meeting page for more information (additional resources will be posted before the workshop).


Leonard Hall, Shaw University, Raleigh, NC.

Shaw University is the perfect place to explore this beyond the chirpy happy talk that often marks discussions of collaboration. Shaw sprung from the bitterly tough minded hope of the post-Civil War black faith, barely around the corner from slavery at the hands of white Presbyterians. They knew racism of every kind–structural, informal, legal, illegal, cultural, subtle and full-bodied screaming, complete with the strange fruit of lynching. And so they created a school. This included a school for preachers, but those preacher-students helped lay the bricks for a school of medicine. Almost at the same time Harvard did, Shaw had a four year school with a hospital on campus. That school was closed by the Flexner Commission, which was charged with standardizing medical education, but went one lap further, taking the opportunity to scrub out nearly all the annoyingly persistent and impertinent Black schools. Wake Forest, up the road with a far lesser story, made it through, so we have the $3 Billion medical center today, not Shaw. Strange institutional fruit, indeed. Yet Shaw persists in its hopeful work today as the embodiment—not of an institutional lynching—but of tough-minded, “gonna-find-a-way” equipping of the People.

Consider coming to Shaw on March 22nd. Who knows what will happen? Who knows what we’ll be able to see together? I suspect we’ll help each other find our bearings.




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).
This entry was posted in 100 million lives, leading causes of life, population health, stakeholder health and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s